Black Orchids

Issue section: 
(331)

Gillian Slovo, Virago, £17.99

Gillian Slovo's latest novel contains all the elements of a thriller: secrecy, guilt, betrayal, deception, desertion. It is also a perceptive exploration of the human desire to belong - in relationships and in wider society.

The story begins in Ceylon in 1946 against the background of political change resulting in an independent Sri Lanka. The central character, Evelyn, grows up genteel but poor in colonial Ceylon. She is a dreamer, an independent thinker, careless of others' opinions of her. She delights in the colour and sensations of her surroundings; she is warm and impulsive and intolerant of the ignorant colonialism of those around her.

When she meets, and later marries, Emil, son of a high caste Singhalese family, the relationship symbolises all that she finds exciting and exotic. She thinks she has found paradise. Her marriage is a passport to her imagined "home".
The reality of life in England proves neither endearing nor exciting and Evelyn soon misses "the technicolour tumultuousness of Ceylon", compared with which England seems "tired, drained, old" and "bleached of colour".

Even with their wealth and status the mixed race family suffers the casual barbs of racism and experiences the "viciousness" lurking behind "the façade of good manners and low voices". Privilege does not alter the fact that "fair play is only for the fair-haired".

Paradise is short-lived, lost even.

The search for one's own identity, closeness and distance between partners, between parents and their children, all figure in the novel. It is about the desire to belong, to be valued, about the dilemma for children who live in the shadow (or the glare) of their parents' lives and how those children pay the price for their parents' choices.

Reading Black Orchids inspired me to re-read Every Secret Thing, Gillian Slovo's memoir of growing up in South Africa as the daughter of Ruth First and Joe Slovo, white activists in the struggle against apartheid. I wanted to see how much of her perception was rooted in her own experience. The answer is a lot. But this remains a novel in its own right.

Gillian Slovo writes passionately about the warmth and pain and the complexity of human relationships. Her success as an author is a realisation and a celebration of her own childhood plea to "notice me for what I am, not for what my parents do".