Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Baker takes readers on a journey through the Indian subcontinent at the closing of the British Empire, focusing on the stories of geologist John Auden, surveyor Michael Spender, as well those of a host of the era's most notable artists, poets, and writers.
...a dense, rich, exhilarating piece of work that moves deftly between worlds and peoples, between locations (Tibet, Cornwall, London, the Karakoram range, Berlin, Calcutta, the Garhwal mountains), between the private dramas of individuals and the tectonic shifts of history ... Part of what the book achieves is a lucid rendering of the complex web of filiations and affiliations that connected not only these three central figures but also others in their orbit and in their disparate, often far-flung worlds ... it is to Ms. Baker’s credit that she keeps the big events always in view, dramatizing and humanizing the workings of history, particularly the story of empire and its machinations, in a way a novelist would—by making it a story of individuals. She understands everything about these people, the details of their lives, the connections and the criss-crossings, intersections, overlaps, friends-of-lovers-of-friends. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there is something Tolstoyan to her vast project. Ms. Baker’s other great achievement is an unsparing depiction of the hypocrisy, venality and inhumanity of British colonialism.
The portrait Baker seeks to paint turns out, perhaps, to be near-impossibly ambitious. She attempts to chronicle and assess the behavior and achievement of a raft of these self-deludingly superior Englishmen and their kin ... they are faults that make for a reading experience some will think hugely colorful and minutely observed. Most, I fear, will find the labyrinthine narrative of The Last Englishmen just too rich, too stuffed with an 'inside-cricket' chumminess (amplified with gratuitously inserted chummy slang: 'knackered,' 'the trots,' 'nicked') and its assumption that all will know their K2 (a real mountain) from their F6 ... Baker’s book is itself not unlike the Calcutta adda. One can imagine it being debated, phrase by well-turned phrase, over endless cups of Coorg kaphi, with the aromas of bidis and State Express 555s lacing the air, until another steamy dawn arrives over the Maidan and everyone stumbles out into the brief damp cool of morning, wondering what all that was really about, while the Hooghly River groans on like syrup to the bay.
This is a thoroughly researched, relentlessly engrossing epic tale. Baker is adept in all areas—on the slopes of Everest or within corridors of power, among Calcutta’s intellectuals or London’s art crowd. She writes with verve and authority on colonial tension, cultural achievement and global conflict ... Baker’s study of national endeavor and personal struggle throws a valuable light on past upheavals and ideals. There is much to admire and a lot to learn.