The Prisoner of Paradise, by Romesh Gunesekera, Bloomsbury, £16.99, 389 pages
Romesh Gunesekera has written about corrupted paradises since his first novel, the Booker-shortlisted Reef (1994), set amid civil unrest in his native Sri Lanka in the 1960s and 1970s.
In The Prisoner of Paradise, Gunesekera’s fourth novel, the abundant fecundity of another subtropical island – Mauritius – provides the backdrop to clashes between the British sugar cane plantation owners of 1825 and their indentured workers from India and Africa. As with Reef, the real drama stems not so much from serious issues – such as colonialism, racism, slavery, exile and gender – but from pitting British properness against the improperness of nature in its outrageous lushness.
Feisty 19-year-old orphan Lucy Gladwell has two years to wait until coming into her inheritance and so, like a 19th-century gap year traveller, goes to live with her very proper aunt Betty and bigoted uncle George on the British-controlled island of Mauritius. Sailing on The Liberty, she is as eager to escape from conventions of the times as she is from whalebone corsets, and she soon loses herself in heady dreams of “bazaars and baksheesh, sultans and sheikhs, kings and camels”.
Among the books she brings with her is one that she finds particularly entrancing – Thomas Moore’s oriental romance Lalla-Rookh, in which a Mughal emperor’s daughter falls in love with a poet prince and lives happily ever after in a “Cashmeer” garden.
No sooner has she arrived than one such noble poet – an exiled Ceylonese who is translator to a prince – knocks on her door. With his blue silk jacket, his English spoken “in the manner of a schoolmaster translating a foreign idiom” and his “large, dark, confusing lips”, the iridescent Don Lambodar is clearly the man to prove Lucy’s aunt wrong when she chides: “A husband, Lucy, is what you need. Not a fantasy.”
Bar a rather shocking ending, the plot and characters behave according to the rules of historical romance. Gunesekera saves his energy for having fun with these conventions. Lucy is a heroine who “almost swoons” when tasting the salty sea for the first time and, when looking at the world through her eyes, Gunesekera’s writing is unashamedly romantic: “Here at last was the true nectar of the south she had so longed for: strong and sweet, amniotic and electric, laced with a hint of the immortal.”
Don Lambodar, for his part, rescues Lucy and her aunt from a naked man wielding a machete in a remote picnic spot. And in a hilarious scene in the botanic gardens’ Avenue Erotique, which verges on slapstick, he attempts to conceal from Lucy the suggestive shape of the coco de mer nut with his foot. Yet it is when he notices the faintness of the lines on Lucy’s lily-white palms, “as though her destiny was entirely her own and the gods of providence utterly benign”, that the difference and distance between them really takes shape. It is in this east-meets-west territory that Gunesekera excels.
When, in an aside, Don Lambodar recalls the tendency of colonials in Colombo to live in mental limbo yet weigh themselves down “with things that made free and quick movement almost impossible, buying – where they could not pillage – everything they could lay their hands on but could barely lift: cavernous pots, giant statues, massive carvings, stone pillars, contadors and almirahs, chunky tables and overwrought chairs”, we feel the smack of truth across the eras.
The story is told mostly from the point of view of the two main characters, Lucy and Don Lambodar, but Gunesekera allows himself an omniscient narrative eye, adopting the perspective of some of the minor characters for short periods, sometimes even for just one sentence.
It is an unfashionable thing to do these days, and given Gunesekera’s command of both form and language (who else could capture the houseboy Muru’s eyes “full of rushed hopes” or have Don Lambodar describe a piano as “a piece of polished furniture … on four elegant curved legs braced for something ecstatic”?), one can only assume that he has done this in homage to 19th-century convention.
The Prisoner of Paradise is a delightful study in method writing, an affectionate, playful tribute to Lalla-Rookh, Jane Austen, the Brontës and the historical romance itself.
Susan Elderkin is author of ‘The Voices’ (Harper Perennial)