A fable, set in the 17th century, filled with vivid evocations of another time, wonderfully peculiar characters, and driven by a rather chilly vision of fate. Jose (Avenue of Eternal Peace, 1991) has an ingenious idea. Edward Popple, a British scientist scornful of his foppish colleagues and uncomfortable in Puritan England, takes a berth as ship's doctor on an expedition to see the Indian Ocean. His daughter Rosamund, a young woman frustrated by the stifling conventions of her class and time, becomes a stowaway on her father's ship. Then a mutiny leads to their abandonment on a small but overwhelmingly fertile island in the East, their only companions birds and sea turtles. Popple falls to the study of his new world with zest, while Rosamund samples her newfound independence, roaming the island, indulging in romantic fantasies. The only unsettling element is Popple's increasingly incestuous interest in his daughter. Their fraying idyll is ended, though, by the arrival of a Chinese junk, carrying an elderly eunuch, an advisor to the just-deposed Ming dynasty of China, and the last male heir to the Ming line, an indolent and seemingly impotent young man. Popple and Lou Lo, the eunuch, carry on lengthy debates in Latin. Meanwhile, Taizao, the heir, finds himself attracted to blond, zestful Rosamund, and after some truly peculiar foreplay, the two consummate their affair. For much of the novel, Jose's dense knowledge of 17th-century science and political theory, of horticulture and of the period's somber religious beliefs, drives the book along, gives it conviction and startling vigor. But the story turns increasingly grim; by the close, a series of nasty plots and betrayals feel as if they've been forced onto the narrative rather than drawn from it. Jose's evocation of his island, and of the conflicting worldviews of two utterly different civilizations in collision, is rich, often witty, and startling. He fumbles only in imposing too abrupt and mechanical an end on his odd, engaging characters.
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