In pre-Independence Ceylon, an arrogant native prosecutor misreads the British rulers he reveres—and gets his comeuppance.
1902: Sam Obeysekere is born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), of a family that’s part of the colony’s elite. Maud, his mother, is a great beauty, his father an amiable spendthrift. Sam believes in justice, the British Empire, and, above all, himself, the firstborn (when he senses a potential rival in baby Leo, he wills his sister Claudia to smother the infant). By the time he graduates from Oxford and returns to Ceylon as a barrister, his father is dead, the fortune gone, and Maud has engineered Claudia’s marriage to Jaya, Sam’s detested contemporary, a philanderer and demagogue. But Sam is undaunted. As God’s gift to the courtroom, he knows the money will roll in, and it does. A judgeship beckons. Then the Hamilton case erupts. The murder of the English tea planter baffles the authorities until Sam’s intervention nets a suspect. Sam is a celebrity! But, alas, the suspect is another Englishman. Sam’s belief that the English prize justice over tribal solidarity proves naïve, and, though his career still flourishes, all hope of a judgeship is dead. Meanwhile, Claudia has killed herself and her baby. Sam avenges her death by banishing his impoverished mother to the family estate in the jungle, driving the former socialite into eccentricity and madness. Back in Colombo, Sam marries a plain heiress, Leela, whom he treats brutally. Throughout, de Kretser (The Rose Grower, 2000) writes beautifully, but her structure is awkward (we end with a meaty postscript from a minor character), and she kills off her characters at such a clip (at least 12 deaths, mostly violent) that we have little sense of evolving relationships.
Overall, an impressive re-creation of a vanished colonial culture and its contradictions, but not a happy fit with the domestic drama of the tormented Obeysekeres.