Although I'm interested in history, I've very little time for reading about the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find that I found this novel fascinating. The story is set in colonial Ceylon in the years between the two World Wars, and the prose immediately drew me into the hubbub, colours and smells, prejudices and tensions that existed in the country at that time. The scenes and events have an authenticity that demonstrates the author's knowledge of pre-independent Ceylon. The narrative also avoids championing the pomp and magnificence of British rule so beloved by some other commentators, and instead portrays the realities of everyday life that are often unsettling.
As to the storyline itself, Gwen, a young bride of just nineteen, arrives in Ceylon to join her new husband, a tea plantation owner. From the very first chapter, continuing throughout, there is an underlying theme that everything is not as it seems. Her husband, Laurence is reticent about his previous wife, but why? Even when he confides in Gwen, you are left with the distinct feeling that more lays hidden in the past. The charming, exotic, and somewhat mysterious, Savi Ravasinghe has a disconcerting air of menace about him, but we never witness him committing any misdeeds. Verity, Laurence's sister, who Gwen never warms to, is polite and anxious to help, but becomes more erratic as the plot deepens, without the cause of her instability being explained. Christina, a rich American banker, appears to have romantic designs on Laurence, but flits in and out of Gwen's life carrying only a threat and never an action. Meanwhile, Gwen is presented with her own dilemma to resolve, and the nature of its source leaves the reader wondering.
On the downside, I generally have an antipathy toward prologues, and this book has a prologue that exemplifies my dislike of them. It is short, teasing, and seemingly distant from the story that follows. It is only about two-thirds of the way through the story that the prologue begins to make any sense - and, by that time, I had completely forgotten its details. I only realised the prologue's significance when, having finished the book, I reread it. It could quite easily have been omitted and it wouldn't have detracted from the plot at all. Indeed, its inclusion creates a disconnect right at the start of the book.
Another thing that slightly spoilt the book for me was the author's inclination to over-describe. Whenever a new character was introduced, their physical features and clothing was described in detail - even bit players that sat on the periphery of the plot. I already know that natives of Ceylon have tanned skin and tightly curly black hair. I don't need to be told this time and again. And, I'm not really interested about the intricacies of fashion that heralds the arrival of yet another affluent European woman. Just tell me that she is wearing an expensive dress, spare me the minutia, it hinders the pace of the writing.
Finally, the worst irritant of all was the constant tears that the main character shed. It seemed that every other page, Gwen could feel the sting of tears behind her eyelids, or fought to control the tears welling up, or turned away so that others couldn't witness her tears, or felt the trickle of a tear on her cheek, or just plain blubbered a fountain of tears. Even the slightest mishap prompted a tear-drenched response. It appears that the author's creativity doesn't stretch beyond smiles on the one hand, and tears on the other.
In conclusion, the book is structured with craft, and the storyline has multiple sub-plots. At the denouement, there is no great plot twist, but rather an unravelling of the threads. Everything is brought to a satisfying conclusion. I certainly enjoyed this book and I could empathise with the protagonist and shared her plight. I'll definitely be on the look out for other books by the same author.