Gillian Slovo’s Black Orchids is an engrossing narrative of love and its recriminations, both good and bad. You may not end up liking the characters, but you can definitely empathize with their predicaments, and this is probably a result of the effective and sensual prose.
The sensuality and immersion in time and place is felt at its most in the opening section of the novel, which takes place in soon to be independent Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), around the midpoint of the twentieth century. Evelyn, a fierce and independent spirit stuck in a sea of genteel colonial bluster, lives with her mother and elder sister. In order to tide over financially, her mother keeps boarders, usually officers of the soon to depart English government, but they know that their time in Ceylon is also almost up. Eventually, they too will need to depart these shores, which is the only home Evelyn has known, for their ‘home’ country, England. Evelyn isn’t relishing the prospect at all. Unlike most of the British lodgers, and her sister, she likes the mystery and difference of the only country she has known and would much rather prefer it to leaving for an uncertain future in another land. This feeling intensifies when a chance encounter with a toddy climber’s accident brings her in touch with Emil, a dashing young scion of a well to do Sinhalese family. Pretty soon they are head over heels in love and passion for each other and despite the misgivings of either side’s family, decide to get married. Evelyn thus stays back in newly independent Ceylon, while her wary mother and disapproving sister depart. After a while though, under the pretext of expanding their family business, Emil and Evelyn also end up in England. What should have been a precursor to a happy family, with two kids and a relatively lavish lifestyle in post-war England, turns out to be anything but for Evelyn and slowly we see the marriage disintegrating. The final portions bring the book back full circle, with their grown up son journeying to Sri Lanka in search of some hard truths.
As already mentioned, the book is heavy on atmosphere. I loved the initial sections set in Ceylon where we could feel the intensity of the place and climate as Evelyn experiences them. After that, the book shifts its action to the relative frigidness of 1950’s London and its hostile attitude to interracial couples, especially one which is wealthy compared to the average populace. Evelyn’s change from a freewheeling spirit to one which is desperate to not stand out much and who resents her husband’s refusal to blend in for conformity does not endear us much to her, but the book doesn’t really try to make us root for her anyway. It tries to bring in us the empathy that sometimes people change for reasons we couldn’t really understand completely unless we live it out, and that sometimes couple’s seemingly forever in love develop cracks even if neither partner does something we agree to be horrible. Evelyn, more than anything else, is portrayed as a confused soul who cannot seem to feel at home anywhere and acts out in immature ways at times. None more so evident than when she interacts with her older and more sensible sister(not something we immediatelyrealize), who in contrast to Evelyn’s lavish life has to do with much more basic arrangements and accepts it with a resigned practicality.
Ultimately, it’s a telling take on love and the consequences of your actions and the attempts to feel at home in your own skin – something which a lot of us can probably relate to. For the same reasons, I would recommend this to most readers.