Prisoner of Paradise-Romesh Gunesekera
nationality: Sri Lanka
"When Lucy Gladwell arrives in Mauritius from England to live with her aunt and uncle in their grand plantation house, her mind is full of the poems of Keats and tales of romance . She is nonetheless unprepared for the beauty, fecundity and otherness of this island paradise between Africa and India, where she is to be waited on hand and foot by servants and free to let her thoughts drift on the sea breeze. If only they did not drift to such problematic subjects as the restrictions of colonial society, or the bigoted outbursts of her uncle, or the disquieting attractions of Don Lambodar, a young translator from Ceylon, himself entangled in thoughts of iniquity and desire and facing a decision which could risk his precarious position. Under the surface there is growing unease. For it is 1825."
So back in Mauritius for me, the book draws you in with its lush island setting full of hopes for Lucy. The Ceylonese provide a foreboding tone but much of the first parts are spent historical world building this fascinating period in Mauritius history. This is an island that "escaped" the ravages of the French Revolution and so is trapped between French and English colonialism, brown convict labor and black slaves. But the viewpoint is from a complacent upper class so this tension mostly simmers-bubbling occasionally to give the upper class a hint of instability but also a sense of all the problems being elsewhere enough that life goes on.
We instead live inside Lucy's head-a liberal who hopes for freedom, a strong suffragette feminist-and Don Lambodar, the exiled Ceylonese Prince's melancholy interpreter. Both are newcomers to the island but Lucy feels uickly at home while Don allows for the viewpoint of an outsider trapped in his Sri Lankan past. Their romance reminded me of a more modern Jane Austen-there's a certain amount of fate, shyness, and misunderstandings going on but with a modern treatment of their difficulty to figure out what to say to each other. My favorite part in fact was how the modern language made these societal bound interactions more accessible. There're hints of wry humor throughout which makes it a very pleasant read.
I found the ending a bit confused, perhaps a bit rushed. Too many things happen at once making its point too ambiguous. Was it a statement on society? on marriage? on the political situation? and why the final bittersweetness? I didn't really understand why Gunesekera gives Lucy everything she wanted while giving no further solution or hint about the political constraints on Don. The ending kind of leaves you with a sense of "this was a great book...but the ending brings it down to 3 stars."