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The Hamilton Case, by Michelle de Kretser.

October 29, 2013

The Hamilton Case, by Michelle de Kretser.  Back Bay Books (2005), Paperback, 320 pages. (Originally published 2003.)



A brilliantly constructed novel about Ceylon, the British Empire, and conflicting perceptions of truth by a woman who lived there as a child and knew its mysterious beauty and danger.

Michelle de Kretser is an amazing writer, both creative and thoughtful.  Her words are meant to be savored and the larger patterns explored long after the book has been read.  The layering of stories and meaning are exquisite.  The Hamilton Case reads smoothly and seamlessly, but underneath its various narrators, times and locations lies a complex structure connecting everything.  De Kretser often conveys important aspects of her story obliquely, leaving the reader to figure out what has happened.  Her writing style reflects her memories of growing up in Ceylon; not any specific memories, but the feel of the place.

What seeps in from my childhood is what you might call atmosphere: that sense of a gorgeous, seductive, and yet rather menacing landscape, for instance, that I retained from the gardens I played in—green and pleasant places, yet so rampant, so lush, that they threatened to overrun any weak thing they encountered.

Realizing the importance of the stories people tell themselves, De Kretser reveals their different and often contradictory narratives.  Her characters are defined by the stories they tell.

Life is bearable only if it can be understood as a set of narrative strategies.  In the endless struggle to explain our destinies we search for cause and effect, for recurrent patterns of climax and denouement; we need beginning, villains, we seek the hidden correlation between a rainy afternoon remembered from childhood and a letter that doesn’t arrive forty years later.

Ambiguity and uncertaincy are central themes in The Hamilton Case. The book is named for a legal case involving a murder, a case for which there are several plausible solutions.  At the end one character observes that the Hamilton case was decided by rhetoric and “narrative necessity,” not by what was true. The case is central, but less important in itself than what it exposes about the lawyers, about the way life was lived in Ceylon under colonial rule, and of course the difficulty in ever knowing what is true.

Still a British colony when the book begins, Ceylon’s elite have adapted and absorbed British patterns.  As in Malaysia and Indonesia great ethnic diversity existed on the island, but initially groups had lived together in relative harmony.  After World War II, Ceylon becomes the independent nation of Sri Lanka, and ethnic violence became widespread.   This is a very local story about Ceylon; but with variations, it is a story which has been repeated globally.  We see the ending of empire through the eyes of a son of the native elite, not the colonizers or original inhabitants.

Like others of Dutch and British descent, De Kretser left Ceylon after independence and settled in Australia.   She understands the way in which “very small private lives are shaped by large historical events, like the breakup of the British empire.”   In her novel large public events are “integral” to private live.

The Hamilton Case opens with the words of the book’s first narrator, expressing the ambiguity present throughout the book.

A name is the first story that attaches itself to a life.  Consider mine: Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere.  It tells of geography, history, love, and uncertainty. I was born on an island suspended on the golden trade route between the East and West—a useful bauble, fingered and pocketed by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British in turn.

Sam, as he is called, is uncertain about who he is.  Although the clues indicate that a British official could have his father, his dark skin proves that he is the son of his mother’s husband, one of the native elite on whom the British depended to rule the island.  Growing up, he and his sister spent time at the family’s ancestral plantation home deep in the bush.  Sam also attended a boarding school where he became indoctrinated with allegiance to the British and their way of life.  He later went to England for his law degree and becomes infatuated by all things British.  “How could it be otherwise?  We had ingested the language. It streamed through our lungs, fired our synapses. It turned to waste in our bowels. It fed muscle and bone.”   Ambitious, demanding and insecure, Sam remained distant from others and was eventually disappointed with his lack of professional advancement.  Black himself, he consistently tries to say that race was not a factor on the island despite all the evidence that it is.

Other important characters in the book included his beloved sister and his classmate who married her and undertook a political career based on ethnic hatred.   A legal colleague of Sam’s narrates the last section of the book and offers a different version of Sam’s life—and his assumptions about the Hamilton Case.  Sam’s mother, sent back to the family home to age and die alone, is powerfully depicted by De Kretser.  In a compelling description of old age, the woman gradually and gently shifts into other times and places, seeing ghosts and walking in the jungle in her ball gowns.  Again all is not what it seems.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I found it difficult to separate its parts enough to analyze and review it.  But this is a book that merits thoughtful consideration.  I had looked for De Kretser’s Questions of Travel which won the 2013 Miles Franklin award.  When I didn’t find a hard copy of it easily, I picked up this one.  I am glad I did.  Now look forward to reading all of De Kretser’s novels.

I heartily recommend this book—to readers interested in Ceylon and a unique view of colonization, and most of all to those readers who appreciate excellent literature.

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