How things might have been different

This is my review of The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser.

Although unlikeable in many respects and clearly an unreliable narrator, as in the portrayal of his charismatic rival Jaya, Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere, nicknamed "Sam", gripped me from the first page with his account of growing up in the early C20 as the grandson of a "mudaliyar" who had gained wealth and influence by assisting the British colonial administration of Ceylon. A successful lawyer with hopes of being the first "native" to be appointed as a judge by the British, Sam's decision to involve himself in "The Hamilton Case" has unforeseen consequences. In all this he remains wedded to his perception of the British way of life: "his veins have run with Bovril".

From the outset, an unexpected wry or brutal observation hits home, as when we are told how Sam's grandfather met his death after gallantly leaping into a lake to save a young English girl who had fallen overboard. In "extreme distress at seeing her … a sweet girl on the threshold of womanhood, being manhandled by a native," a friend "in understandable terror, confusion and distress…brought her oar crashing down" on his skull. For this she was of course absolved of all blame.

On reaching Part 3, I seemed to have strayed into a different book which had lost the plot. The short chapters cease to be so alluring as they flit between characters: Sam's eccentric mother, his wife, son, several servants, etcetera. Substance gives way to form, in a style that begins to pall – too wordy and contrived, over-poetical. Sometimes the prose is beautiful and striking, but too often it appears self-indulgent padding.

The book would have been strengthened by more frequent, ongoing release of information, "true" or otherwise, about "The Hamilton Case", the personality of Sam's enigmatic sister Claudia and the nature of their relationship, to establish these aspects as key underlying threads.

De Kretser has been original and ambitious in seeking to work on several levels to produce: a "good yarn" reminiscent of Somerset Maugham; a whodunnit; an exploration of a complex family; an examination of the cultural effects of colonialism. This even extends to capturing Sam's "perfect mimicry" of the British in such a phrase as, "in cahoots with some ne'er-do-wells". As a colleague bitterly observes, "at some point quotation had become our native mode. There was no original." The author is also bold in experimenting with the structure and style of the novel. In all this, I am not sure she succeeds, but I admire her for the attempt.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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