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This review is taken from PN Review 64, Volume 15 Number 2, November - December 1988.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Three Continents (John Murray) £11.95
In Three Continents, Ruth Jhabvala has produced her most assured and complex treatment of the conflict between East and West, individual morality and social morality. She focuses on the impact of a spiritually and materially bankrupt Eastern cult on Westerners who are financially overprivileged but emotionally deprived. Much of her attack on oriental primitivism is reserved for its advocacy of androcentric values and attitudes; and the style as much as the content of the novel reinforces her criticism of female/male polarities.
 
The first person narrator, Harriet Wishwell, is presented both thematically and linguistically as a paradigm of female subjection. The narration is full of submerged ironies: Harriet admits to coming from a line of American liberationists who were 'ready to stand up first for the slaves and then what they called the other slaves, that is, their own sex', and yet she lets herself become a modern version of nineteenth-century dependence, allowing her Eastern husband to control her money, mind, body and moral core. Jhabvala carefully builds up the psychological framework for such capitulation, showing a girl uneasy with her own femininity and confused about her sexuality. Harriet classifies as typically 'female' the interest in clothes, perfumes, and shopping - all of which bore her. Significantly, her father Manton and her husband Crishi both object to her dowdy appearance. Crishi even remarks that she is 'more boy than girl', and Harriet herself refers to her own 'thin hard physique' and 'tight little breasts'. These suggestions of androgyny are ...


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