After having established herself with some clever and well-constructed thrillers and crime novels, Gillian Slovo moved into the mainstream, eventually to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Ice Road, a novel of such grandeur and accomplishment that I had the highest expectations for its successor. Unfortunately Black Orchids only partially fulfils them. Its first section, set in Ceylon on the verge of independence in 1946, is so brilliant an evocation of both the appearance and the mood of the country that it at once convinced me that Slovo had surpassed herself. Its later sections forced me, sadly, to revise this view.
Evelyn is a wayward, passionate girl, living with her staid sister, Marjorie, in the capacious house that her now-widowed and penniless mother has had to turn into a boarding establishment, filled with young, vacuous British government officials, all too soon to be relieved of their jobs. One of them is