Bloomsbury, £16.99, 389pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Prisoner of Paradise, By Romesh Gunesekera

 

It is 1825. Lucy Gladwell, a callow young Englishwoman, arrives in Mauritius to live with her aunt and uncle in a grand plantation house. She is, of course, ardent and plucky, idealistic and hopeful that here, away from stuffy England, she will be emancipated, find her true self and an all-consuming love.

The island has been under the Dutch and French, and is now claimed by the British. Its inhabitants are postcards of a long history of migrations, conquests and colonial exploitation, mixing and merging of blood and shifting allegiances. Pesky abolitionists are determined to stop the use of black slaves, so a fresh supply of hapless humans - convicts, serfs and bondsmen - are shipped from India. Race divides the de-humanised and class segregates the Indian "coolies" from profiteering south Asian entrepreneurs and adventurers, who rub along with European masters and mistresses. Uncle George is a harsh official; his kindlier wife, Betty, buys plants, throws parties, maintains domestic order and Victorian conventions.

Mauritius, like Zanzibar, is an evocative isle, dreamlike and nightmarish. I often went to Zanzibar as a child, a place of serial subjugation and occupation, beautiful and damned. Though she tries to deny her feelings, Lucy is irresistibly drawn to Don, a proud and handsome Ceylonese translator who works for an exiled prince. On this hot and heady island, controlled by unbending rules, will it be a dangerous liaison, a fatal attraction?

The film is waiting to be made. It's all there: an inverted but murky Pride and Prejudice, paradise spoilt, ill-fated lovers, rascals, imperial wickedness, the cunning of natives, plots and mêlées and a host of fabulous flowers. Romesh Gunesekera's novel takes the bouquet of romantic clichés and throws it up, makes it soar and scatter, leaving its scent in the air.

Though we've met the characters often enough and the story is familiar, anxiety and uncertainty build up: a sense that the unexpected will catch us out. And it does, often. Exquisite prose awakens all the senses: "The birdsong next morning laced the sky in a tapestry of sound... cocoroos punctuated by coos and tweets; a chorus of pips and purls and curls and caws... The sun reached deep below her skin like the tongue of an inner flame." When a hurricane hits, "a river burst out of the sky. Daylight was doused... he saw a huge tamarind out on the road being pulled by the wind: the leaves and branches turned inside out as if in shock". The eroticism of nature and its menaces are ever-present; light and shade, wisdom and foolishness, inanity and brutality, pleasures and pain. Like Lucy, we are on an island we will never understand.

The perversions and protocols of racial domination appear changeless and given. Rebels have to be broken, forced to accept the status quo. After an attempted insurgency by Indian labourers, one is mutilated, killed and hung up. Uncle George is unabashed: "Swift action has a purgative effect that is both necessary and desirable. Justice demands it. If a man attacks the norms of our society, then he needs to be removed from it forthwith".

These men have whips and guns and gallows yet can't stop the chaos of their inner lives. Nor can colonial memsahibs who maintain well-appointed gardens and the niceties of social life. The membrane of desperate pretence bursts and mayhem ensues. Lucy, with all those unsuitable longings, has no chance. She is no operatic, tragic heroine, but her innocence moves and raises protective instincts in the reader.

My biggest criticism of the book is that the oppressed individuals are bit players, barely delineated, in effect dehumanised further by authorial indifference. Also, there are too many unnecessary characters. And some of the dialogue reads like a bad parody of Jane Austen. Here is Aunt Betty on embroidery: "I would recommend engagement with the damask... if done with true feelings... it will divert the distress that may otherwise consume us". Finally, the author sometimes gets carried away and overwrites. Gunesekera could, but hasn't quite managed to, write an epic on imperialism. The novel, though, is a terrific read: pacey, political, moral, atmospheric and, yes, definitely romantic.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's 'The Settler's Cookbook' is published by Portobello

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?