Title: Black Orchids
Author: Gillian Slovo
I enjoyed Black Orchids, a story dealing with race and set in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and England from the 1940s through to the 1960s. It is a story of the white Evelyn, raised in the then Ceylon as a child of a diplomat father. Her family’s life changes when Ceylon is granted independence – leaving the family with having to return to England.
The options faced by Evelyn, are to return and end up married and stuck in what she predicts will be a dull marriage or to return, not marry and see out her days as a spinster. She meets and falls for Emil, a young Sinhalese from a wealthy family. Being rebellious by nature, she marries Emil – much to his family’s disapproval- and driven in part by her wanting to rebel against her own family, and his own rebellion in wanting to shun the pervasive caste system of his country. Her marriage is one of convenience to some extent because the options she faces of a future in England, if she returns with her family seem a bleak option. An offer of marriage from the well-to-do Emil seems a way out of that bleak future.
Evelyn and Emil make the move to England, with their young son Milton, in the early 1960s. Life is England is not as rosy for them as she had envisioned it would be. As a mixed race family, raising a young son, they struggle with the racial prejudice of England in the 1960s. Evelyn never seems accepting of her husband’s race once she’s in England, and to some extent seems embarrassed by not only his exuberant personality – a far cry from the reservedness that defines her countrymen – but also by his being Sinhalese. Milton, their eldest son picks up on her mother’s embarrassment and internalises it, dealing with the prejudice, and struggling to fit in the the boarding school his parents send him to.
It’s a interesting analysis of race told from Evelyn’s, and the self loathing Milton’s perspectives. It is in Emil that one gets a sense of someone very comfortable in their skin, despite the circumstances and nuanced discrimination he has to deal with, and despite his wife quietly pushing him to conform more – to be less himself.
Gillian Slovo’s take on the issue of belonging is a good one, she does well giving the reader Evelyn’s perspective, for only then do you realise that the book is really more about her struggle than his. After I had finished the book though, I was left with a feeling of dissatisfaction. Emil’s character is the more interesting, with Evelyn’s being overtaken by her feelings and struggles, which the author goes into detail about. The book deals more with the issue of belonging, with the racial issues becoming secondary. It was a good read from that point of view, but not a great one when it comes to delving deeper into how England was dealing with race around that time.
Verdict: Recommended but I would like to read more books by other authors that deal with the same issues of race and belonging in England in the 1960s.