You all know how much I admire Romesh Gunesekera’s work, right? Especially The Match which is about cricket and growing up in the Philippines and Sri Lanka in the 70s. So I was really happy when Bloomsbury kindly sent me a copy of his latest, The Prisoner of Paradise, to review. I didn’t really know much about the story and didn’t want to read other reviews to spoil my reading except that it was set in Mauritius sometime in the 1800s. I don’t think Gunesekera has tackled historical fiction before but this was beautifully rendered and was, in fact, rather more romantic than I anticipated.

It is 1825 and Lucy Gladwell is on her way to Mauritius with her aunt, Mrs. Betty Huyton, after the sad demise of her parents. Never having travelled out of England, Lucy is excited as to what exotic delights she would encounter in the tropical island. What she finds is an outwardly genteel British society transitioning from French rule. And when she meets the dark and brooding Don Lambodar, companion to an exiled Ceylonese prince, Lucy is exposed to the dark undercurrents of the island in which master and slave, colonisers and locals all strive to hold on to their identities and belief in freedom and duty.

I was expecting a standard romance and yet knowing that it was Gunesekera writing the book, I knew there would be something more. Rather than just focussing on the forbidden romance which felt as though it was more a secondary plot, Gunesekera vividly brings to life Mauritius’ complex and often brutal colonial history with its hierarchical society, mixing of peoples, cultures and race. Lucy is naive enough for every moment and experience to be new and devastating that she wants to make a change. And yet, she finds herself held back by her Englishness and entitled status. Her modesty often made me sigh out loud and was rather Austenesque and yet it provided a sharp clash against the earthiness and human-ness she discovers in Mauritius. In many ways, she reminded me more of virginal Alice Munro in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans rather than Austen’s or even Georgette Heyer’s heroines.

Although the story falls short of epicness in terms of romance, the historical and social aspects were eye-opening. There is a vitality to Gunesekera’s story-telling which leaves a colourful impression long after you’ve finished the book. The Prisoner of Paradise wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed reading Gunesekera’s playful and beautiful prose all the same.

A big thank you to Bloomsbury for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review. And do also check out Stu’s review.