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The Guyanese-born Heath (the superb Armstrong Trilogy, 1993-94, etc.) surpasses himself with this ambitious, vividly written, psychologically rich chronicle--set in his own colorfully multiracial native country--of compromised ambition and family conflict. Originally published in 1991 in England (where Heath now lives), it's the story of Betta Singh, a physician of Indian descent who gives up a promising private practice to work as a GMO (Government Medical Officer) on a Guyanese ""sugar estate"" (i.e., plantation), hoping to help stem the tide of malaria that regularly strikes down its exploited and neglected native workers. And, most memorably, it's the story of his wealthy, domineering widowed mother (who ridicules Betta's selflessness), ""an exile from marriage and from her country . . . stranded on the shore of an unrelenting loneliness."" As Betta challenges his heartless superiors, then painstakingly adjusts to the defeat of his ideals and the complex pressures of marriage and fatherhood, Mrs. Singh sternly deals with her own embattled household, meanwhile falling under the calculating influence of the Pujaree, a Hindu holy man who seduces her and takes over her home and money, to the end of building his own temple. The story features a host of skillfully drawn secondary characters, all of whom exhibit entirely credible conflicting impulses and desires, examined with nonjudgmental understanding and sympathy (even the crafty Pujaree emerges as a very human mixture of pure and impure motives). And in the harrowing progression from mother's love through sexual enslavement to climactic violence and madness of Betta's larger-than-life mother, the author has achieved a masterly feat of characterization: This is a woman whom no reader will easily forget. Heath's brilliant novel--also distinguished for its lyrical prose, expert handling of its several native populations, varieties of pidgin English, and memorable use of figurative language--was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It's hard to believe it didn't win.

Pub Date: Nov. 28th, 1995
Page count: 438pp
Publisher: Persea