The paradise in Romesh Gunesekera's "The Prisoner of Paradise" is Mauritius, although quite who the prisoner is is open to question. Set in 1825, the island is a tinderbox of tension. Britain has taken control of the island from the French and is shipping convict labour, mainly from India but also from Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, and there are remnants of the increasingly unpopular slave trade also working in the sugar cane mills of the island where punitive taxes make any other sort of arrangement uneconomic. The result is a veritable crucible of nationalities and tensions are high. It's a fascinating backdrop and a relatively unusual setting for fiction.
Shipped into this cauldron is young Lucy Gladwell, arriving to live with her aunt and uncle after the death of her parents in England. Her aunt, Betty, is a paragon of decorum, concerned with what is right and fitting for a young girl and running her plantation house with some tenderness towards her servants, but traditional in her views. She and her husband, George, are used to the colonial life, having lived in the West Indies previously, where George's racist views have been forged. Also recently arrived on the island is the somewhat incongruous presence of a Ceylonese Prince, his brother and their young translator, Don Lambodar. The prince is in a British enforced exile and is only partly a prisoner. This appears to be based on a factual exiled prime minister, although his elevation here to a fictional prince adds glamour but also makes the story a little too fairy tale. However, the focus is not on the prince, but on the young translator and his feelings for Lucy.
Ostensibly it's a conventional story of boy meets girl, boy cannot express himself, girl hated boy, and will they won't they resolve this issue all set against a backdrop of social tension and unease. There's even the good old literary fall back of nature, here in the form of a tropical hurricane, to bring things to a head. It's the issues of social tension though that, for me, made it a slightly difficult story to get sucked into. Gunesekera covers a lot of issues, which undoubtedly would have been issues of the day, but there are just so many things going on in the background that this distracts slightly from the central story.
It feels like a very old fashioned book. Partly of course this is due to the 1825 setting, but also due to the writing style which can be described as "flowery" - both metaphorically and literally as Gunesekera is much concerned with the flora of the island which is also something of a melting pot of influences.
Lucy is a young idealist, much taken with poetry, and is ill prepared for the reality that faces her on this island paradise. So who is the prisoner here? Lucy is confined by social norms, Betty is confined by a difficult marriage, Don Lambodar is partly confined by his exile but also by the bars of language, and that's before we get into those who are genuine convicts. The book's strength is that it encourages the reader to ask these questions, but to me, the problem is that it detracts from the central relationship between Don and Lucy. I found myself reading their story with interest but without being truly engaged in their plight.
Gunesekera's message seems to be that you can take any physical paradise and really mess it up by adding human beings. The general tone of the outcome of the relationship is also, for the attentive reader, rather obviously flagged midway through the book but I'll leave you to discover what that is.