Caste in Doubt

Edie Meidav is a student of human bewilderment. In her first novel—about an American called Henry Gould trying to establish a utopian community in the British colony of Ceylon—she's woven the blundering figure of a holy fool into a bristling tapestry of local life. The Far Field is historical fiction without a shred of nostalgia, and even its sometimes predictable plot is finally justified by Meidav's scarifying emotional honesty and visceral sense of place.

Meidav uses multiple points of view to elucidate the explosive caste system in a 1930s Ceylon chafing under British rule, a system Gould underestimates with increasingly catastrophic results. At times Meidav seems to be winking at us over the shoulder of her idealistic "pink man"—a former fraud inspector, of all things—as he misreads the motives and status of nearly everyone he meets. Even the lush, indifferent landscape mirrors the villagers' mocking, manipulative response to his utopian projects—the model garden, the lectures on hygiene and diet, the catechism with which this son of a Protestant minister conducts his own personal reformation to purge the local Buddhists of idols and "superstitions." Gould, we are told, "has never been sure about his own destination." Such congenital restlessness is common in an America that celebrates manifest destiny and self-creation, but can constitute both insult and public shame in a place where most are born to fixed roles.

Entranced by the sensual, expressionistic language, we watch with queasy fascination as Gould plays the unwitting accomplice in subplots pitting caste against caste and British occupiers against all. Whether portraying the murderous schemes of an imperturbable Buddhist monk, the marketplace gossip of a pair of shrewd dancing sisters, or the dangerous ambivalence of the mixed-caste loner who becomes Gould's personal assistant, Meidav skillfully traces the intricate web of connections her hero cannot see.

Details

The Far Field
By Edie Meidav
Houghton Mifflin, 584 pp., $25
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Yet this ambitious novel's real force lies in Gould's gradual transformation from an easily targeted caricature to a compellingly broken man as he is deconstructed by the place he came to change. Rarely has a writer so relentlessly enumerated the varieties of misapprehension or so harshly repudiated the notion that honest, good intentions lead inevitably to understanding and connection. Over time the cumulative pressure of that which is unsaid or unheard drives The Far Field beyond its easy flirtation with satire to a place of raw indelible visions—violent tableaux that anticipate the subsequent history of the country now called Sri Lanka.

 
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