Raised in Sri Lanka, living in Australia, Michelle de Kretser has written a bewitching second novel that begs comparison with the island of her birth. Like the country, this flamboyant account of love, murder and trauma in colonial Ceylon seethes with richly diverse cultures and entrancing but contradictory stories. A profusion of plots, images and allusions sprout in jungly abundance. Imagine a tropical Ireland with palms instead of potatoes, and you have some idea of the burden of memory and myth that Sri Lankan writers carry.
Sam Obeysekere, whose self-deceiving memoir begins the novel, is a seemingly smug Colombo lawyer from the Sinhalese élite. In this first section, he recalls his pampered upbringing - feckless father, "fast" mother - and his glory days at the pre-war Bar, all in the hearty drawl of a PG Wodehouse drone. "Quotation," another character comments later, "had become our native mode."
Sam seems a clear winner in the devious game of empire that the British (like the Dutch and Portuguese before) played with the peoples of Ceylon. Soon, however, a battery of threats - historical, professional and psychological - leave his sense of identity looking as rotten as decayed timbers in the monsoon-stricken family mansion.
On the public stage, Sam's former schoolmate Don Jayasinghe develops the demagogic, sectarian politics that will leave the pro-British upper class marooned as independence (in 1948) approaches. In the Ceylonese courts, Sam overreaches himself with the baffling "Hamilton case". A fan of Agatha Christie-style detection, he strives to pin the murder of a tea-planter on the (white) lover of the victim's wife. Thus the Anglophile imprudently risks "putting a noose around an English neck".
Meanwhile, as the novel shifts into the third person, we grasp the mayhem and misery that lurks in Sam's privileged childhood. In a superbly exuberant prose aria, his guilt-plagued mother drops into delirium in her rank jungle retreat.
At the close, another shift of narrator - to the Tamil lawyer John Shivanathan - puts Sam's lifelong performance into perspective. We scan the broader context of his "gift of perfect mimicry", and his doomed choice of persona: "You picked a story and stuck with it." When his Tamil rival begins to pen glib folkloric stories about Ceylon, packed with native flora and fauna, Sam fumes that: "I'm as authentic as any bally mango."
The Hamilton Case delights and intrigues on quite separate levels. De Kretser delivers the lavish, traditional pleasures of two favourite genres: the colonial gothic melodrama and the upper-crust murder mystery. At the same time, she explores how such forms misconstrue reality. Shivanathan, the closest to an objective voice we hear, accuses himself of having "mistaken the world for a book". This danger troubles, but stimulates, de Kretser.
She knows how phoney "exotic" tropical narratives sound to insiders; and that literary views of the East drawn in the West often "convert the unbearable into the picturesque". Yet she never stints on the gorgeous landscapes and gripping yarns that her theme and place demand. If this looks like having her cake and eating it, so be it. The outcome is an utterly captivating blend of intellectual muscle and storytelling magic.
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