‘The Hamilton Case’ (2004), an early novel from the phenomenal Michelle de Kretser, is an extraordinary evocation of place. I came to it expecting a murder mystery – the one in the title – and instead went on a journey along the city streets and jungle paths of Ceylon.
The first section is presented as part of a memoir by the Oxford trained Singhalese lawyer Sam Obeysekere who solved (or did he?) the mystery of the murder, which itself sounds like something out of a W. Somerset Maugham short story. This section has one of those extraordinary voices that are utterly compelling: that can make you laugh, while you also know the man behind it is more than a bit of a shit. It reminding me of my response to John Lanchester’s ‘The Debt to Pleasure’ (1996). How can these writers make me enjoy the voices of such odious men? It’s a skill I’d love to learn.
The larger past of the novel then looks more closely at Sam’s family, including his hard – and hard to like – mother, and the last section is a letter to his son. As it turns out, the various theories about the Hamilton Case which turn up in each section, become prisms through which we can see the history of the colony and attitudes towards the groups within it, Singhalese, Tamil, and the British Imperialist. It is not a happy book. Any student of history knows what happened next in the post-colonial period, the complex roots visible here in ‘The Hamilton Case.’ All the violence that has not seen an end.
Ceylon is now of course Sri Lanka and is much in the news this ANZAC Day, a day when we are already forced to turn our thoughts to war and suffering. Our national news sources angle for a local connection to make their audience take notice. Hundreds dead in terrorism attacks this week are a statistic; two with the same passport as you are human tragedy.
Novels, especially literary fiction, can also open up new channels for empathy. Statistics and sensationalist headlines become real. The people of Sri Lanka lifted from the pages as I closed de Kretser’s novel and turned on the news. Their grief is not so easily dismissed in the welter of the day’s reporting.
Feature image: Marianne North in Mrs Cameron’s house in Ceylon, taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in January 1877. The photograph captures Marianne North painting a Tamil boy.