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The Devil is White, By William Palmer

Idealism, passion and African reality collide in this tale of innocents – and the guilty – abroad

William Palmer's novels have always tried to superimpose great truths on relatively small-scale canvases. His last outing, The India House, took place in a nest of Raj-haunted gentlewomen during the Suez Crisis. The Devil is White returns us to the late 18th century in its efforts to decipher the real meaning of such tantalising abstractions as "liberty" and "harmony" when applied to a so-called "free colony" on the slave-ridden West African coast.

"Muranda", a fertile yet suspiciously inhabitant-free island across the straits from Sierra Leone, has been represented to the colonists as a paradise on earth. Eagerly embarked towards it on the Pharaoh are a motley array of gentleman "subscribers" and their servants, womenfolk and children. These include the Boy's Own Paper-styled captain, Mr Coupland, Jackson, his enigmatic mixed-race factotum, the poetry-scribbling secretary Caspar Jeavons, and boozy medic Dr Owen, enflamed both by brandy and the thought that his flaxen-haired wife may be nightly dishonouring his trust.

In fact, solicitous Mrs Owen's virtue is above reproach. The reader's worst fears about the expedition's chances of success, on the other hand, are all too speedily confirmed. Although the local despot, King Tabellun, seems agreeably disposed, disease lurks amid the mangrove swamps and the only flourishing concern is the hastily constructed graveyard. Sir George, the venture's titular head, hastens back to Blighty, while a gang of malcontents swiftly deserts for a life of cave-dwelling idleness on the island's northern shore.

All this information is set down in a tangle of different perspectives: third-person reportage; Caspar's letters to his old schoolfriend Torrington; Dr Owen's no-nonsense reports ("Deaths this week: two men, who brought consumption with them from England… and one woman, Mrs Ancorn, who suffered agonies from ulcers"). Of the ladies, several of whom have the potential for greater roles, we hear disappointingly little.

Neatly written, full of sharp twitches on the psychological thread, The Devil is White is at its considerable best in a handful of highly symbolic set-pieces: Caspar seeking out a brothel in Tenerife, and discovering that his purchase has no tongue; an elephant hunt which ends in the slaughter of the prime bull and Tabellun's revenge; Hood, the resourceful carpenter, lost in the forest and spending the night with only the apes for company.

Cramming preparations, voyage, settlement and crisis into a bare 300 pages was never going to be easy. If this study of Enlightenment-era idealism brought low by circumstance has a flaw, it is simply that the space Palmer allows his extensive cast of characters sometimes seems insufficient for the dilemmas they have to resolve. Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger, to which this bears certain unavoidable resemblances, ran to twice the length. The conclusion, too, for its incidental quirks, is absolutely foregone. None of this, though, should detract from Palmer's immense talent as a novelist, and my only real complaint about him is that he doesn't write nearly enough.

DJ Taylor's 'What You Didn't Miss: a book of literary parodies as featured in Private Eye' is published by Constable

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