Maddeningly overwritten debut novel about a middle-aged dilettante who travels to Ceylon, hoping to attain enlightenment for both himself and the idol-worshipping natives.
We first encounter Colonel Henry Fyre Gould as he journeys toward Ceylon (today, Sri Lanka) via ship. Although the year is 1937, Gould—like the omniscient narrator—expresses himself in the florid and inscrutable language of a late-Victorian poet. The son of a bloodless upstate New York minister, Gould abandoned the seminary for a career as a civilian military man (a fraud inspector) but never exorcised his longings for spiritual satisfaction. These yearnings were satisfied, to an extent, when he encountered Madame, a Russian spiritualist clearly based on Madame Blavatsky, and through her teachings became a follower of Buddhism. Now he has traveled to partially Buddhist Ceylon in order to “teach . . . the people their own culture”: that is, to create a model village, complete with general store, schoolhouse, weekly self-improvement lectures, Ceylonese dance troupe, communal garden, etc. At first, all goes well. Gould sets himself up in a small town called Rajottama, hires an able assistant, Jehan, and a nubile maid, Nani (who, of course, becomes his mistress); he affiliates himself with the monk Pandit, who instructs him in the Sinhalese language and the precepts of Buddhism. The locals regard him as something of a god. But, as any reader will anticipate, before long his fragile new world begins to unravel and he slowly realizes that his view of Ceylon—and himself—is utterly romanticized: his monk is corrupt, his assistant a spy for the British, and the people don’t want their caste system destroyed or their idols smashed to bits.
Meidav provides many of the elements required for a great epic, but her overblown prose, deathly slow pacing, and virtually nonexistent plot undermine whatever pleasures are here.