Mauritius is the adopted home for diverse ethnicities: the ruling English, French settlers, plus Ceylonese, Indians, and Africans, including slaves and convicts. Into this combustible atmosphere comes orphaned Lucy Gladwell, who arrives from England to stay with her Aunt Betty, a smart, gracious woman whose open-mindedness vies with tradition, and her Uncle George, a racist official, at their plantation house.
Lucy’s path crosses that of Don Lambodar, the Ceylonese interpreter for an exiled prince, when he delivers a letter to her uncle. An Indian slave wants to establish a “Hindoo” shrine and persuades Don to negotiate on his behalf – a risky move on Don’s part. Idealistic, bookish Lucy attracts, repels, and befuddles Don in turn. Their mutual search for freedom has great potential for a grand romance, but the simmering political tensions keep it in the background until late in the book.
The island’s majestic beauty captures all of the senses, with descriptions of the wide sky and ocean, the sweet scent of ripe pineapples, and the cries of native birds. Its colorful flora is both lushly abundant and mischievously symbolic, with Lucy and Don’s first meaningful conversation taking place in a garden full of plants shaped like male and female body parts. The author’s dialogue is witty and expressive, and the plot addresses colonialism’s realities while commemorating the power of the written word. The book’s clever title is left open-ended, with all of the women restricted by their gender, and everyone on the island subject to its “aristocracy of skin.”
The Prisoner of Paradise is published by Bloomsbury (UK) this February at £8.99 (pb, 400pp). It also comes as a larger-format paperback, published by Bloomsbury last February at £11.99, which is the copy I bought and read.