Archive for the ‘Novel of Place’ Category

Michelle de Kretser (2003) – The Hamilton Case

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The Hamilton Case is first and foremost a novel of place.  Second, it is a psychological study—a number of them, actually.  Third (and a weak third, I would say) it purports to be—and plays with being—a mystery.  Taken as a whole, it is a rumination on what one might call the British Reichdämmerung—the Twilight of the Empire.  The place is Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in the first half of the twentieth century, when three hundred years of British colonial rule came to an end after World War II and the rise of local self-rule movements. 


The psychology is that of Sam Obeysekere, born in 1902, grandson of Sir Stanley Obesekere, who was a mudaliyar—a Ceylonese office that “placed a man at the pinnacle of our island’s social system” and who rose in the Colonial administration so far as to be awarded knighthood.  It is also the psychology of his mother, Maud, his sister, Claudia, and his wife, Leela, and, to an extent, of just about every character de Kretser creates.


The obvious mystery is the eponymous Hamilton case, but there is yet another, more disturbing mystery that turns out to have permeated the story without asserting itself until the final pages of the novel.  If you are an aficionado of the murder mystery genre, do not seek out this book.  Most of what transpires has nothing to do with whodunit, why, and how.  


This is one of those narratives in which nothing much happens, and at great length.  As a study of place, it succeeds in creating a rather disembodied ambience in which the visual is very much subservient to the feelings the setting engenders in the characters.  This is not a travelogue.  If you don’t know anything about Colombo (or anywhere else in Sri Lanka for that matter) before you read the book, you don’t know much more after you finish it.  But you do get a sense of the enervating power of its tropical heat and humidity and the never-ending struggle against mold, mildew, rot, decay, insects, and other insistently intrusive flora and fauna and their unending olfactory assaults.  There is a lot about smells—more than in any other novel I can remember.  But, there is nothing in the descriptions that makes one want to visit at the earliest opportunity.  Quite the opposite.


One of de Kretser’s expatriate Ceylonese characters articulates the problem an author faces in trying to conjure up a veridical image of Ceylon (or any other unfamiliar setting). 


[Readers] wrote to tell me….  Your work is so exotic.  So marvelously authentic….  I saw that what I had taken for the markers of truth functioned as signs of exoticism.  The colonizer returns as a tourist, you see.  And he is mad for difference.  That is the luxury commodity we now supply….  The prose may be as insipid as rice cooked without salt.  No matter: call up a monsoon or the rustle of a sari, and watch him salivate.  (p.305)


De Kretser serves up both monsoons and saris, but by staying true to her characters manages to avoid providing local color for the sake of local color alone. 


The British Empire in Ceylon, at least as portrayed in The Hamilton Case, is an organization of smoke and mirrors designed to produce the illusion of a velvet glove where in reality there is naught but a mailed fist.  Ceylonese—Sinhalese, Tamil, and (mixed race) Burgher alike—are welcome, nay encouraged (because of their useful knowledge of the island and its cultures) to fill lower-level civil service positions, but only so long as they are perceived to support wholeheartedly the Velvet Glove Illusion. 


In his excitement of “solving” (shudder quotes made necessary by an ambiguity that becomes apparent only at the end of the novel) the Hamilton case—with the foreseeable consequence of finding a white British man guilty of murder and in turn sentenced to be hanged—Sam momentarily loses sight of the underlying reality.  The exhilarating satisfaction of being the instrument of justice clouds his mind.  The prestigious judgeship he expects as his due evaporates.   He has forgotten that nobody who counts wants a judge on the bench who is willing to do equal justice to British citizens and Ceylonese subjects alike.  Sam’s momentary lapse is not so surprising.  Sam was educated on the British model in the best Ceylonese prep school.  He read history at Oxford and then read law at a prestigious firm in London.  In spite of the unceasing barrage of evidence day in and day out to the contrary, he has come to think he is white (or at least colorless) in his profession.  Wrong!


As de Kretser makes clear, the British felt a terrible, hubristic ambivalence towards their colonial subjects—subjects, meaning inhabitants of a subjugated possession, not equal citizens of the British Empire, and certainly not equal British citizens.  On the one hand, colonial subjects were free to travel to England, attend schools there (including Oxford and Cambridge), train there, and live there; but on the other hand they were always the other, the distasteful, fightening dark-skinnned, inferior other.  Tolerated at best.


I am reminded of a conversation I had as a Harvard freshman in 1960 with a classmate from the American Deep South.  I had asked about “the race problem” or some similarly (I hoped) unprovocative paraphrase of the question I wanted to ask, which was roughly, “How do you feel about the treatment of Blacks [actually, at that time, one would have said Negroes] both culturally and legally as second class citizens?”  Now, fifty years later, I still remember his exact words.  In a detectably aggrieved tone he replied, “We love the colored people.  We take care of them.”  A Britain might have said the same thing.  At their most idealistic, they really believed they should, in the words of Kipling’s poem, “Take up the white man’s burden.”


But there was something else going on in England.  As one of de Kretsers’ characters remarks, it used to be in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that a non-white face there would surely belong to a rich person—maybe a prince or a princess—such were the only such people who could afford to travel that far; but by the 1950’s, less distinguished, ordinary people were able to visit, and prejudice could find just that much more traction.


If the novel were transported entirely to England and Sam Obeysekere transmogrified into the son of an eccentric English noble family, his character would be a familiar one.  A boy raised in traditional, emotional isolation from his parents who becomes a cold and distant man unable to relate to his wife or his son, contemptuous of the lower classes, ultimately perplexed by the empty hole inside of him that he tries unsuccessfully to fill with a childishly obsessive devotion to his physical home and the haphazard acquisition of physical possessions that confirm his self-image as a person of substance.  As such, he would not, for the most part, be particularly interesting.  British stiff-upper-lip, emotional constipation has been scrutinized at exhausting length by many writers.  They all come to the same conclusion.  If you are unlucky enough to be unable to recognize that you are clueless about the emotional life of others, you won’t be beloved of your wife and children, and your friends may not care much about you either.


But Sam is Sinhalese.  He has absorbed English culture all too well—a remarkable testament to the identification over time of the oppressed with the opressors.  That doesn’t make his type more interesting, though.  I would rather not have spent as much time with him as the novel required me to do.  It’s all very well to understand why he is brutish, but understanding is different from sympathy.  A sympathetic character, Sam is not.


Sam’s father, who cheerfully and systematically gives away all of the family’s wealth is a disturbing figure.  Largesse is one thing; bringing your family to the brink of insolvency is quite a different matter. 


Sam’s mother, Maud, is another unpleasant presence in the novel.  Irresponsible and uncaring in her own way, she has no affection for Sam; and Sam, although he desperately craves her affection, treats her with contempt—but always maintaining the proper appearances.  He provides her with the minimum necessary, and visits her with scrupulous regularity.  De Kretser takes us inside Maud’s mind as Maud has a nervous breakdown—a psychotic episode that brings to mind stories of LSD hallucinations.  Eventually, Maud regains (or perhaps gains for the first time) control of herself, but by then my sympathy was exhausted.  I didn’t care.


Structurally, the novel is divided into four parts.  Part I is narrated in the first person by Sam Obeysekere and tells of his family, his education, and his life, and the events leading up to his introduction to the Hamilton case.  The author purports that “These manuscript pages were found among Sam Obeysekere’s papers after his death.” 


Part II picks up where Part I left off.  The author narrates in the third person the story of the Hamilton case from Sam’s point of view.  Sam’s brilliant detection leads to the conviction of the murderer, Sam’s fame is established and thus “He knew it was time he married.” (p. 123) 


Part III is about what happened after the Hamilton case.  It is narrated by the author in the traditional Victorian novel voice of an omniscient third person privy to the thoughts and feelings of her characters.  It carries Sam from his marriage to the birth of his son, Harry; the death of his wife, Leela; his estrangement from Harry; and finally his own death.  De Kretser shows us Sam’s mother, Maud, and his wife, Leela from the inside.  We learn that Maud had another son, Leo, who lived only a few months and died in his crib.  Sam was eight and his sister, Claudia was three.  Claudia marries a Sinhalese political rabble-rouser and gives birth to his son, whom she kills and then she commits suicide.  Sam comes to have doubts about whether justice was done in the Hamilton case.  Think Rashomon.


Finally, we learn the complete story of Leo’s death—a tale worthy of Tennessee Williams at his best.  When All Was Revealed, I had to rethink my assessment of the novel so far.  I still thought it was tedious, but at least there was an unexpected, melodramatic twist that moved the story from dead-center commonplace to worthwhile.     


Part IV serves as an epilog, taking the form of letter written after Sam’s death to Harry in England from Sam’s Tamil friend, Shivanathan.  I use the term “friend” advisedly.  Sam would have preferred “former colleague.”  Shivanathan, though, might not have caviled at “friend.” 


De Kretser’s prose is a bit plodding, generally without excitement, but she does from time to time provide thought-provoking insights and satisfying images.


My favorite has got to be the interchange between Sam and his prospective gardeners:


[H]e called together the six men who had restored order to his garden and put this question to them: “What is gardening?”


The rich were like the sun, disease, the pull of currents, which is to say, arbitrary and potent.  Each man feared, instantly, that this riddle would be the means to deprive him of his day’s wages.  They stared dull-eyed….


At last, one of the men took half a step forward….


“It is preventing things from growing.”  (p.140)


And that, on a tropical island where everything conspires to promote the proliferation of plants of a thousand kinds, is the correct answer.


Sam’s wife, Leela, becomes depressed.  In years past, she had found solace in the pages of Sir Walter Raleigh’s novels, but, de Kretser chillingly observes, “Narrative, an optimistic form, assumes that it is worth turning the page.”  (p.151)


Sam, staggered by Claudia’s suicide, watches the monsoon.  “Nails of rain were driven into the sea,” de Kretser tells us.


Sam does not come across as a bigoted person insofar as race is concerned.  Class, yes; race, no.  Still, with children, there is no escape from the culture at large.  Sam’s son, Harry, scolds his ayah for always going in the sun without a hat.  “You will become black like a dirty Tamil person,” he tells her.  (p.236)


Describing the events of February 1948, de Kretser tells us, “The English were leaving, with the haste instinctive to thieves.”  (p.245)


Sam’s son, Harry, goes to Oxford at the age of twenty.  The question of what he should study looms large.  Harry seems to have no particular talents and no interests. 


Sam wrote to his old tutor.  Fisher, now the Senior Fellow, suggested that the boy read history.  It does a young man no lasting harm.  Thus it was settled.  (p. 250)


Sam’s father criticizes Maud, after a prize-giving at Sam’s prep school.


 “I say, old thing, you should try harder with Sam.”  “Should I?” said Maud, as startled by the fact of the reproach as by the point it delivered.  “Yes.”  After a minute, “Do you think he minds?” she had asked.  “I should say so.”  …  Among a set that valued astringency in human relations, her style passed as good form.  (p. 158)


And finally, Maud, writing from the exile Sam has imposed on her to the Lokugama estate in the hinterlands, has been painting a brighter, more optimistic than realistic picture of her situation and her environment to her correspondents.  De Kretser notes, “It was not her intention to deceive.  There is an old instinct at work in bordellos and the relations of East and West, to convert the unbearable into the picturesque.”  (p. 158)


I didn’t think so on the first reading, but on the second reading, this seems like a book worthy of note.

Mary Lawson (2006) – The Other Side of the Bridge

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Having recently read Mary Lawson’s first novel, Crow Lake, comparisons are unavoidable.  Both similarity and difference are apparent from page one of The Other Side of the Bridge. Both novels are set in the same community in northern Ontario.  Both begin with a prologue looking back to a past event, but the event described in The Other Side of the Bridge sets a dark tone not present in Crow Lake.  Both use the device of narration in the third person from the standpoint of a particular individual.  Crow Lake has a single narrator, The Other Side of the Bridge has two narrators, Arthur and Ian, roughly a generation apart, who alternate chapters—Ian gets the odd numbered chapters, Arthur gets the even numbered chapters.  This kind of structure telegraphs its ending, which always has the stories of the two narrators becoming intertwined.  The reader’s challenge is to see if it’s possible to figure out (from hints the author drops along the way) how the intertwining will play out.    


Crow Lake focuses on a single event and its effects on the narrator over time.  It’s more difficult to say what The Other Side of the Bridge focuses on.  I’d say it centers on Arthur’s younger brother Jake, but it doesn’t always focus there.  Ian and Arthur have other concerns.  Ian, the son of the town doctor, is an adolescent trying to find himself.  Arthur is trying to run the family farm he inherited when his father was killed in a tractor accident.


Jake is a bright, personable, manipulative sociopath who is the apple of his mother’s eye.  For no reason that is ever given or even hinted at, he takes pleasure in making the rather plodding Arthur’s life miserable.  Arthur initially tries to get his mother to see what kind of person Jake really is, and he discovers early on that she will brook no criticism of her darling Jake.  Arthur is thus effectively coerced into supporting his mother’s delusion.  When Jake accidentally or intentionally (we don’t really know which) causes Arthur a rather severe injury, Arthur lies about its circumstances and fabricates evidence that supports his report that the injury was accidentally self-inflicted.  When Jake is angry with a schoolmate, he cons Arthur into threatening him, getting Arthur into trouble.


Few others ever seem to be aware of Jake’s unremitting dark side.  Ian glimpses it momentarily in the events leading up to the novel’s climax, but his attention is focused elsewhere and he does not know what he has seen.  In a community where everyone knows everyone else his or her entire life, this seems a bit odd, but I guess I believe there really are people like that.


Jake is stupid about Arthur.  He assumes Arthur can always be manipulated.  Jake is correct most of the time, but on the occasions when Jake pushes Arthur too far, it costs Jake dearly.  But Jake is pathologically incapable of real feeling.  The consequences of Jake’s actions have far more destructive emotional effects on those around him than they do on Jake himself.



Sociopaths are thrill-seekers—daredevils.  When Jake falls from the bridge, the disaster is of his own making.  He has so thoroughly destroyed his own credibility with Arthur that Arthur quite reasonably dismisses his attempts to communicate the precariousness of his position.  Interestingly, although Arthur becomes obsessed with the thought that he is responsible for Jake’s fall, Jake never implicates him.  Perhaps Jake fears that the revelation of the magnitude of the risk he blithely took would damage his status with his mother as the child who can do no wrong.  This does not seem to occur to Arthur, who fixates on the fact that when Jake “his voice a shriek” cried out, “ ‘I’m going to fall,’ ” Arthur just said, “ ‘Good’ ….  A word that would haunt him for the rest of his life.” (pp. 74-5).  The thoughtful reader will have had the same thought, but without the regret.


Jake’s father, although he does not know the exact facts of the fall, understands that Jake brought it on himself. 


[His father] was so mad spittle was flying from his mouth.  “Fourteen damned years old, never taken responsibility for a single damned thing he’s ever done.”  (p. 104)


When Jake and Arthur’s father is killed in a tractor accident we learn about on page 7, but don’t actually see until page 159, Jake tells Arthur, “I hate him for dying before he learned I wasn’t worthless.”  (p.160)  Typical Jake.  In any case, we never learn anything that suggests that Jake isn’t worthless.  I guess that just means Jake would have said the same thing whenever his father died.  Jake cares what his father thinks of him—or so he says—but if he ever had even an inkling of what it would take to gain his father’s respect, he never acts on it.


The bridge incident reminds me of the central event in John Knowles’ (1966) A Separate Peace, in which the main character intentionally shakes the branch on which a schoolmate is standing, causing the schoolmate to fall to his death.  But injury is not death, and Arthur did not deliberately try to make Jake lose his grip. 


While Arthur is dull, Ian is bland.  Ian doesn’t seem to have strong feelings about anything or anyone except Arthur’s wife Laura.  He develops an adolescent crush on her—with strong erotic overtones—but it never goes anywhere, although it does precipitate the climactic confrontation between Arthur and Jake.  That’s relatively little to show for being the center of every odd-numbered chapter in the book.  Most of the time, Ian just isn’t very interesting.  Dull, plodding Arthur actually seems more alive.  The traumatic event in Ian’s life is that when he is seventeen his mother leaves his father to go off with the man who teaches geography at the local high school.  Ian takes this as an unforgivable betrayal of both his father and himself.    


Ian’s attraction to Laura reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem that begins


Helen, thy beauty is to me

            Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

            The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.


Helen was the mother of one of Poe’s classmates.  When he first met her, he was fourteen and she was twenty-seven.  Although the poem was published when Poe was twenty-two, it bespeaks the same kind of adolescent, mother / lover confusion that permeates Ian’s feelings towards Laura.


A nice touch in the psychological dynamic of the novel: Ian’s mother leaves some time after Ian has been smitten by Laura.  Full points to the author here.  Things would have been much less interesting if the two events had occurred in reverse order.  After Ian’s mother leaves, Ian is devastated.  He reacts by refusing to have anything more to do with her.  He discards her letters unopened—all one hundred ninety-two of them over the next three years.  He never forgives her.  And all the weight of his devastation falls onto his image of Laura.  His inchoate longings and unresolved feelings towards his mother become entangled with his erotic attraction to Laura.  It does not occur to him that his idea of Laura and the actual Laura are not one and the same.


Ian projects onto Laura his ideal of motherhood—she becomes a symbol of the mother he doesn’t have—but he has created a negative ideal of motherhood.  Everything about his mother was wrong.  The ideal mother is one who does not, would not, could not, do anything his actual mother did.  As Lawson tells us:


Once when he was a small child a Sunday school teacher had taught a lesson on being good….  All you had to do was ask yourself what Jesus would have done…..  [Ian] saw that for the past three years he had been working on a variation of that idea: in any tricky personal situation he had asked himself what his mother would have done, and then he had done the opposite.  It seemed to him that she was the prefect anti-role model.  (pp. 172-3)   


May we all have the perspicacity to look back on our adolescent decisions like these with sufficient objectivity to recognize when we were being just plain stupid.



Part of the pleasure of reading is to encounter felicitously phrased evocations of everyday situations that make us see them in a new light.  Here are some that appealed to me.


Silence is pretty much, well, silent, but Lawson makes it communicative as well.  In the course of a single, short paragraph Ian reflects that Arthur’s silence was “companionable”, his son Carter’s silence was “morose”, Ian’s friend Pete’s silence was “thoughtful”, and Carter’s silence (reconsidered) was “resentful”.  (pp.94-5)


Anthropomorphism can be overdone, but Lawson wields a deft brush.  Ian and Pete climb to the top of a cliff overlooking the lake.


Below them a couple of crows were bouncing about on a boulder, yelling at each other.  Then a third crow joined them and added his opinion, then a fourth.  They stood around bickering for a moment and then, abruptly, they seemed to reach agreement and they all flew off.  (pp.185-6)


Ian knows that Arthur’s son Marsh would like a rabbit for a pet.  He mentions it to Pete, and the next time he and Pete go fishing, Pete hands him a box with a baby rabbit in it.  Ian chides Pete because the box is too small.


“He doesn’t even have room to turn around,” Ian said.  “I thought you guys were supposed to have this special thing with animals.  A respectful relationship.  Like, asking their forgiveness before shooting them, that sort of thing.”


Pete gave him a look.  He reached out and took the box….  He put his head down to the box and said, “Hey, wabbit, forgive me, man.  I’m sorry I had to eat your mom and stuff you in a shoe box.”


He handed the box back to Ian.  “There you go.  He feels better about everything, now.”


Lawson’s message, expertly delivered, is that sometimes it is important not to take yourself or cultural stereotypes too seriously.  I find this particularly amusing in light of the scene in the movie Avatar (2009) in which the Na’vi heroine apologizes to the vicious creature she has just killed to save the hero.  Then she turns on the hero and reams him out for having made it necessary to kill the beast.  Later, the hero brings down a deer-like animal with his bow and arrow.  He apologizes to the carcass, explaining that it was needed for food.


Pete is not a major character, but he is finely drawn.  He is an Indian who lives on the reserve (reservation, we say in the U.S.) near Struan, the town in and around which the action of the novel takes place.  Pete and Ian are schoolmates of above average intelligence.  Pete is a good friend and a perceptive observer.  Ian is conflicted about his future after high school.  (p.275)  Pete decides to stay in the area because “I know what’s important to me.  And I know I don’t have to go anywhere else to find it.”


[Ian] said bitterly, “People are going to think you’re scared….  They’ll think you’re scared you can’t make it out there.”


Pete … looked at him.  He said mildly, “You care too much what people think, man….  At least I’m not doing something I don’t want to do just to prove a point.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ian said, hot with anger now.


“You know what it means.” ….


“No, I don’t.”


“You’re dumber than I thought, then,” Pete said, still mild as milk.  “Go work it out.”


The icing on this cake comes in the next scene.  Ian dreams of his mother.  She complains, as she did before she left, that there is nothing in Struan.


“That’s what I can’t stand about this place.  I can’t stand the nothingness.”


He said, “I’m here, Mum.  It isn’t nothingness if I’m here, is it?”


She smiled at him and for a moment he almost thought she was going to say no, you’re right, of course you’re right.  But instead she said., “Go work it out.”


Lawson has managed to tie together Ian’s plaintive question (p. 55) to his mother before she left—“If I won’t go with you, will you go anyway?”—with his procrastinating ambivalence towards college planning.


In the epilogue, narrated from Ian’s point of view, Lawson tells us that Ian had a nervous breakdown at the end his second year of medical school and went back to Struan for about a year before finishing up.  Ian didn’t seem to be to be the nervous breakdown type, but with the author in tell rather than show mode, we either take her word for it or not.  Either way, it’s not fully satisfying. 


It’s nice that Ian finally manages to see Laura as a person instead of an unfaithful (fantasy) lover and a failed mother-surrogate.  By that time, I was pretty much beyond caring.


It’s Arthur, rather, who comes out better at the end.  His final words to Ian are gentle and generous.


The smile once more.  “And Ian … thanks for comin’.  Not just now.  All those times, back then.”  (p. 293)


Notwithstanding accurate psychological observations and the occasional rhetorical delight, I can’t see recommending The Other Side of the Bridge.  I’m glad I read Lawson’s Crow Lake and I’ll keep an eye out to see if her next novel (if there is one) is better.