Two years after Ceylon becomes independent Mrs Williams, a poor widow, packs up to move back to England. The elder daughter goes with her, the younger daughter Evelyn, however, 19 years old, beautiful and headstrong, decides to stay. She's fallen in love with Emil Reymondo, the dashing and flamboyant son of a rich Sinhalese rubber planter family. Her mother wants to see her happy but warns her not to think only of herself and the present but to consider also the consequences with which she refers to future mixed-race children. Emil's family breaks with him, but the young couple is convinced to make it against all odds.
When their first child, Milton, is three years old, Evelyn persuades Emil to move to England. He overcomes his pride and asks his father for financial aid who, surprisingly, is ready to grant it at once. Emil is told to build up the family's rubber business in England.
From the beginning Emil and Evelyn are filthy rich, they live in a luxurious home, drive a Rolls Royce and send Milton to Eton. Together with Vanessa, their second child, they're the perfect happy family. Or are they? Something happens that shatters this idyll, we follow the Reymondos until Milton is 25 years old and see how they cope or don't with their lives after the catastrophe.
Gillian Slovo is good at describing landscapes, the lush jungle of Ceylon comes to life as well as the dreary post-war England which to Evelyn is 'bleached of all colour'. Having grown up in Ceylon, which she considers her home-country, she is shocked by the English reality. Fortunately objects aren't described ad nauseam in the way 'on the left side of the door was a wardrobe, on the right side was an armchair.' We learn what the house looks like when Evelyn shows it (off) to her sister and points out the furniture, the latest appliances and gadgets.
The way Gillian Slovo deals with the main topic of the novel, i.e., racism, is brilliant. It's a good idea to make Emil and Evelyn rich, in this way primitive prejudices like, 'These foreigners have only come here to live off our tax money' are excluded. And then it's an ironic twist to make the immigrant much richer than the natives, the former colonisers. The carousel of genes has brought it about that Milton is even darker than his father whereas Vanessa has got her mother's fair skin and only her father's black hair and black eyes. Evelyn was granted the wish she made about her second unborn child just after arriving in London, a wish she'd never had thought of in Ceylon, and one she never utters to anybody, namely , 'Please God (for the child's sake), let this one not turn out too black.'
Depending with which member of her family at her side she mixes with English people more or less embarrassing situations occur. Their rich 'friends', Emil's business partners and their spouses, humour them, but Evelyn's antennae are alert, she hears them snigger and sees their furtive glances, she knows what they gossip about behind their backs. Heart-wrenching the way the Reymondos are treated at a festivity at Eton, all other families mix and mingle, they stand alone, a foursome that 's unfortunately not invisible and a sore in the eye. The racist narrow-mindedness of 1950s English society isn't ready to accept an interracial marriage and 'half-caste' children.
Evelyn's idea of coping is to keep a low profile, but Emil claims, "My money is as good as theirs." Why should he distort himself? He is who he is and he knows that whatever he does, he'll never be fully accepted anyway, so the English better get used to him.
Although things have changed and racists are now in the defensive, ethnic differences and their acceptance by mainstream society are still topical in immigrant societies. The first part of the novel dealing with this complex of problems is really good and worth reading.
The following familial problems have nothing to do with race and acceptance, they can happen to anybody and anywhere. In my opinion the second part of the novel is a disappointing let-down. Milton moves to the foreground and we follow the complicated relationship he has with his father. Not only does he have to compete against Emil's strong personality but also find a place for himself. In contrast to his father he hasn't experienced a society where he fits in during the formative years of adolescence.
This is interesting to read but overshadowed by what becomes of Evelyn, the radiant princess from the beginning. The author has forgotten to tell us what she does all day long in the castle Emil has built for her what with a housekeeper and all possible amenities. She's also forgotten to give us a plausible motive for her strange behaviour which she shows all of a sudden. At least that is what I feel. It doesn't matter if a fictitious character is positive or negative as long as it's believable.
Black Orchids is Gillian Slovo's 11th novel but the first I've read by this author. I learnt about her when she was interviewed by James Naughtie for the Book Club on BBC Radio 4 (albeit on a different novel). She was born in 1952 in South Africa, the daughter of Joe Slovo, leader of the South African Communist party, and Ruth First, a journalist who was murdered in 1982. Both parents were heavily involved in the anti-apartheid movement. She has lived in England since 1964.