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Black Orchids, By Gillian Slovo

Opening in colonial Ceylon in 1946 and ending in 1970s Sri Lanka, Black Orchids is a parable of contagious racism.

It demonstrates a dismaying dialectical relationship between intuitive attraction to and visceral recoil from those perceived as "other". Prejudice in the public world seeps into personal bonds, rotting them from within.

An epic narrative is driven by a commitment to profound and contemporary issues. The novel pledges itself to a noble ethic, showing at each moment the folly, cruelty and ubiquity of the toxins of racial prejudice. But this focus makes Black Orchids rather a fable than a fully characterised and complex novel.

Blonde, headstrong, adolescent Evelyn, born in Ceylon, must be repatriated to a Britain that is only nominally her motherland. In the arresting opening tableau, she watches a limber Sinhalese toddy tapper shin up a tree and topple to his death. She feels obscurely implicated. This fall, into "fragmented skins, and bones that had once been a man", also marks and darkens the moment of erotic awakening. Emil, a wealthy, liberal and handsome Sinhalese heir, sweeps Evelyn from the scene of carnage. Against everyone's wishes, they marry and leave for England.

As Evelyn and her toddler navigate the Suez Canal in 1950, they pass troopships bound for Korea. The Empire, in decay, still preposterously asserts global superiority. In England Emil, who is ordered round like a servant, takes it with the genial humour of a confident elite. Postwar Britain is a nation drained and defeated by its own victory, its people mean, whey-faced and riddled with prejudice. Nevertheless, setting up a luxurious home, the family builds a business and sends its son to boarding school. And everything falls apart.

As a white woman married to a brown-skinned man, with a dark-skinned son, Evelyn is sexually suspect. It gets to her. As her husband and son make their way through a crowded shop, they seem like "moving points of magnetism, first repelling... then attracting heads turning". Evelyn knows she's "a magnet in her own right". Secretly, treacherously, she prays that her second child will not turn out "too black". The fatal sickness of racism has penetrated her.

Britishers in Black Orchids are - pretty well across the board - tarred with the same brush as bigots, blimps and asses, the drossy remnant of an arrogant Empire. This is too crude a picture. The plot creaks under its load of fable and the characters are heavy with thematic meaning. Yet it remains provocative and original. In a subtle moment, Evelyn flinches from the comfort of Emil's embrace: "why was she having to resist an impulse to move out of his grasp?" This tiny moment of recoil opens the rift that is to come: a headlong fall into betrayal and family breakdown.

Stevie Davies's latest novel is 'The Eyrie' (Phoenix)

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