Black Orchids by Gillian Slovo

01/11/08, The Times

It is difficult to believe, reading Gillian Slovo’s issues-heavy, politically liberal and morally black-and-white novels, that she started out as a crime-fiction writer. But she made her name with the literary novels: with Red Dust, almost a retread of Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden but set in South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation years, and Ice Road, a novel about Stalin’s purges and the siege of Leningrad, which made it to the Orange Prize shortlist in 2004. This year she returns with another tendentious book, Black Orchids, that addresses other Burning Issues, this time the ruptures brought about by colonialism, the post-colonial dilemma, the immigrant experience, the problems of assimilation.

It opens in colonial Ceylon in 1946 and ends in Sri Lanka in 1972, that change in name and the span of time indicators of a sea-change in politics of the Empire and the ex-colonies. The book opens with Evelyn, English, blonde, beautiful, witnessing a native toddy-tapper fall off a palm tree to his death below. It is at this inauspicious moment that she meets the dashing and charming Emil, the rich, young scion of an upper-class Sinhalese family. They fall in love and get married, arousing the ire of Emil’s family, and, partly to get away from them, they decide to leave Ceylon and set up home in England. In 1950, with Milton, her three-year-old son, Evelyn arrives to England, where Emil has already bought a lavish house in Bishop’s Avenue and set himself up in a lucrative business.

But the racist narrow-mindedness of 1950s English society does not take too well to an interracial marriage and half-caste children, and slowly grinds down Emil and Evelyn’s relationship. Chief among their disagreements is the different strategies of coping with both the egregious and the subtle manifestations of discrimination. While Evelyn wants Emil to conform and hide away, Emil responds to racism with bluff, obstinate cheer and flamboyance, a resolute unwillingness to go away. Things come to a head when Evelyn has an affair with Charles, one of Emil’s junior business partners, and the marriage ends in a pretty spectacular disaster.

Meanwhile, Milton, who has inherited his father’s dark complexion, faces a tough time in the posh minor public school his mother insisted he attend and, in due course, gets expelled. Emil gets Milton to start working at the family firm but the boy has hit adolescence, so he is brimful of resentment and rebellion, especially against his father. Years pass and Milton develops a slight eating disorder and a drinking problem. But Slovo has one major surprise up her sleeve – although it’s signalled so amateurishly that the reader can see it coming from miles away – and it is this surprise that will lead Milton to travel to the country of his birth, now called Sri Lanka, to connect with his roots. By abrupt authorial fiat, the lucky young man will suddenly discover in the last line of the book that he also belongs there. Hurrah!