Top critical review
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on 15 April 2009
I really liked Slovo's beautifully evoked "Ice Road" but "Black Orchids" was a real disappointment. The book spans over 25 years from Sri Lanka in the 1940s to England in the 1970s and back to Sri Lanka, yet it does not even begin to have an epic feel. It seems hurried and curiously lacking in depth, with too many gaps in the narrative for me to really identify with the Raymundo family.
A potentially interesting character, Emil Raymundo, is a shadowy not quite fully realised figure, while his wife Evelyn is presented as the interesting one, marrying a coloured man, yet feeling out of place in both Sri Lanka and England. I quite like the picture Slovo draws of a mixed race couple in England (although Slovo completely misses out on the Englishness of the country in the 1950s, the manners and the way of life of the era, it could be set just about anywhere, at any time). Yet the family's predicament fails to elicit my sympathy because the racism they encounter is clunkily depicted.
The first half of the book was better than the second half where Evelyn takes a lover which destroys her marriage and causes her to "disappear" back to Sri Lanka and be declared dead by her husband. Oh dear, oh dear, it was simply not credible! Did Evelyn not try to contact her children? Did everyone else around them think she was dead? How did Emil get away with the fiction of her "death" with the authorities and the wider world? I was unconvinced.
After Evelyn's departure the story revolves around her rootless son Milton. But here the author's intent is not entirely clear. Milton seems a lost soul but then comes to Sri Lanka to find his mother and suddenly finds this is where he belongs! It was all too rushed.
The compelling themes of colonial families in Sri Lanka, the difficulties of mixed marriages and immigrants in post-war England often seem like a sidebar in this rather clumsy novel that only occasionally reveals the sparks of good writing so evident in "Ice Road."