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
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power