Despite an evocative writing, a cloying predictability weighs Romesh Gunesekera’s narrative down, says Mitali Saran
DESPITE ITS bodice-ripping title, Romesh Gunesekera’s fifth novel begins promisingly enough, buoyed by elegant prose and an intriguing setting. Lucy Gladwell disembarks from the Liberty on the shores of Mauritius in 1825 to live with her aunt and uncle in their dreamy house at Ambleside. Nineteen, orphaned, brought up on a diet of romantic poetry and Mary Wollstonecraft, she yearns for an exotic new life filled with love and freedom. This, surely, is where she will “[slip] the straps and strings of silly custom and fusty decorum”.
The wild fecundity of the island, where you can “feel the sap bubble”, practically screams liberation; but Lucy quickly finds that freedom is in short supply in this British colony full of slaves and indentured labour. She wants to change the world, but then again the young lady feels “bridled by the greater mission of the mother country”. Her uncle George Huyton’s racism kindles fires of indignation in Lucy’s bosom — fires almost as troubling as those caused by the Ceylonese interpreter, Don Lambodar, who bears a striking resemblance to the prince of her exotic dreams.
Fortunately, he also loves her. Unfortunately, they can’t get their act together beyond sparring in a somewhat tinny version of the spoken style of the period. Through Maypole dances, races, afternoon tea parties and almighty dinner parties, not to mention Botanic Gardens festooned with suggestive coco-de-mer nuts, Lucy and Don meet, have laboured exchanges, and leave one another in confusion. This increasingly irritating romance grows alongside a slave rebellion that is cruelly put down before the whole thing is capped by a hurricane and a couple of tragedies.
THE NOVEL has many merits. When Gunesekera hits his stride, he writes beautifully and evocatively, with a special talent for the startlingly apt image. The sea is “amniotic”; aunt Betty looks like “a great egret come home, her weary wings folded”. (Aunt Betty is possibly the most likeable of the cast: gently ironic, comfortable in her skin, wiser than she lets on, tougher and more complicated than she appears, she proves the most interesting companion through this book, and her eventual unravelling evokes more pathos than that of the lovers.) The island’s natural beauty drips off the pages. Interesting ideas emerge regarding the political, philosophical and physical tensions between the oppressor and the oppressed, and between comrades.
Yet, too much about this book rankles. The plot mirrors the star-crossed literary romances that preoccupy the protagonists, but rather heavy-handedly so. The point of view shifts, partway through and without much logic, to Don. Some of the characters are engaging —Amos Pottinger, the only free black man on the island; Asoka, cousin to the Ceylonese prince; Muru, the servant boy at Ambleside — but the main protagonists remain something of a caricature. The dialogue is far from sparkling. The prose is too often purple, the tone too often sentimental.
Much before the last page, it’s clear that the promise of the title is more accurately borne out than the promise of the first few chapters. Pass, dear reader. Read Gunesekera’s Reef instead.