This is Shiva Naipaul's last novel before his untimely death at the age of 40, in 1985. He is the younger brother of VS Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature; I've always considered that Shiva was the better and more insightful writer. This novel is set in Charlestown, in the South American country of Cuyama; which is a very thinly disguised version of Georgetown, in former British Guyana. In the United States, the country is most famous for the mass suicide / murder at "Jonestown," led by the "Reverend" Jim Jones in 1978. Shiva Naipaul also wrote a book on that event, Journey to Nowhere: A New World Tragedy. This book has nothing to do with that event, but was obviously a derivative on his time in country researching the other event. The book also draws on Naipaul's on upbringing in Trinidad.
Guyana / Cuyama is a country of under a million people, living in a hot, muggy climate. Almost all, save for the American Indians, cling to the coast, with the "impenetrable jungle" behind them, containing some American Indians and the descendants of runaway slaves. As a legacy of the British Empire, the largest ethnic group is Indians from the subcontinent, followed closely by descendants of slaves, and there are a few scattered whites, who are descendants of those who brought the two larger groups together in this unlikely place, all in an effort to grow sugar cane, to sweeten the proverbial cups of tea in London.
Aubrey St. Pierre is the principal character. He is the descendant of slave owners who fled the rebellion in Haiti, and rebuilt their fortunes, with palatial house, in Charlestown / Georgetown. It is a decade or so after independence was declared in the `60's, and Aubrey is a liberal burden with the legacy of his ancestors slave owning past; is determined not to "cut and run," and runs a bookstore to elevate the intellectual level of the "natives." The bookstore, as well as everything else Aubrey touches, quickly becomes lost causes. Aubrey hires, and eventually marries Dina Mallingham, who Naipaul powerfully portrays in the first chapter, in a vignette that will ultimately provide so much understanding into her character. Both Aubrey and Dina are lost souls, though Dina seems to have a more realistic assessment as to why. Naipaul has some strong passages describing Dina's life as a series of events that just seem to happen to her; both her marriage and the birth of their only child are "out-of this-world" experiences. They happen to her, but without any desire or feeling on her part. If the reader hasn't guessed it earlier, about half way in the book Naipaul confirms that Dina is a descendant of those from the subcontinent. Naipaul has a knack for catching the details that best depict the anomie in the lives of both of them. There is also some excellent portrayals of "minor characters" such as Dina's father, Aubrey's mother, and a visit from Aubrey's former college roommate, now a journalist living in England. They are playing out their lives against a backdrop of increasing unrest among the lower classes, and overall decay of both society, and the physical infrastructure.
Shiva's brother, VS, made his mark by similar portrayals of decay and decline in post-colonial societies, which seem to find a niche market for those who were nostalgic for the days of Empire. For me, the difference in the two brothers is that Shiva writes with empathy for the characters that are caught up in the tragic turn of events, like survivors of a hurricane; VS lacked that empathy.
Concerning their marriage, consider one of Naipaul's assessments: "Had she been ground to dust by the tyranny of his uncomprehending affection? Did she too occasionally yearn to run away from him?" Or of their overall fate in this post-colonial society: "They had been fooled and cheated. But fooled and cheated out of what? Out of the knowledge of their condition. That, in the end, was the true oppression. They had been duped."
As you might suspect, there are not many novels about life in Guyana. This has to be the best: incisive, authentic; unlikely to be promoted by their Tourist Board, which is all the more reason to read it, even, before you go. A solid 5-stars.