Sunday, February 19, 2012


This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express


Naïve young men and women. A bespoiled Eden. And lost innocence. That’s what Romesh Gunesekera’s first novel, Reef, was made of. With The Prisoner of Paradise, he returns to the same elements, this time with middling results.

The novel is set in the Mauritius of 1825, less than two decades after the French ceded the island to the British. On this land arrives the orphaned 19-year-old Lucy Gladwell, wanting “much more from the world than could be found within England's pebbly shores”. She’s to stay with her aunt and uncle, the latter being a Colonel Blimp-ish colonial administrator, very much a stock character.  (Lucy’s circumstances are thus markedly different from those of Deeti, who, in Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, also arrives in Mauritius in the early decades of the 19th century to start a new life.)

With her secluded, poetry-steeped upbringing – Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh being a favourite – Lucy is initially charmed by “this sunny southern island bursting with colour and full of the sounds of singing and buzzing, gurgling and rustling, whistling and whispering…” Must have been difficult to sleep at night.

Soon, she meets and is attracted to the Darcy-like Don Lambodar, a suave, saturnine translator at the service of a rebellious princeling from Sri Lanka. But this is an island -- peopled by those from India, England, France, Mozambique and Sri Lanka, among others -- that, in the words of Lambodar, “the French emancipation failed to reach and the English abolitionists have yet to discover”. Soon, there are rumblings in paradise: disaffection spreads amongst the indentured plantation workers and others over the construction of a temple, as well as their overall circumstances. Natural and man-made storms will ensue, and lives will be overturned.

There’s certain obviousness to much of the material – Wide Sargasso Sea, this isn’t -- and many of the events occur offstage, being subsequently recounted by witnesses in the form of long conversations. This isn’t helped by stilted dialogue, even if you take into account the attempt to mirror earlier speech patterns. The prose, too, can veer towards the overheated: “He thought he was conducting a conversation, but discovered it had turned into a quarrel of silence with pauses and peripeteia of peculiar proportions”. A little later, flowers are revealed to be "sucking the morning sun into their dewy delicate tubes and releasing faint undulating vapours..."

What does come through, however, is Gunesekera’s earnestness in unfolding the narrative, as well as the sincerity with which he conveys the depth of feeling between Don and Lucy. Other than that, Prisoner of Paradise is too shackled to satisfy.

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