From the opening pages of Pauline Schokman’s stunning novel, A Different Kind of Madness, I felt as if I had been there before. Not to Sri Lanka - or more correctly in the historical context of this book, Ceylon, as it was known then - but to another book written with the same exquisite tension about racial disharmony and intergenerational discord.
Of course, there are many Sri-Lankan-born writers with whom Schokman, now based in Melbourne, will no doubt be compared. Similar themes have been explored numerously by multiple-award winning authors, including Michael Ondaatje (Anil’s Ghost, The English Patient) who was born in Ceylon in 1954.
The tiny tear-drop nation – renamed Sri Lanka in 1974 - has brilliantly inspired legions of talented writers to turn out evocative - and frankly delicious - writing. With so many marvellous books coming from Sri Lankan writers which explore similar topics as A different Kind of Madness, you may well wonder what was in the water of their magical birthplace.
Of course, it is not just the water, but the scented tropical air, the heady mix of cultures and the terrible legacy of Sri Lanka’s colonial past which has inspired some of the greatest writing of the past few decades.
An especially memorable read for me was Gillian Slovo’s Black Orchids - the brilliant book with which I compare with this one. Slovo’s book opens in the late 1940s, just as colonial rule is ending in Ceylon. It follows the lives of a British daughter of a tea planter married to a wealthy Sinhalese man, as the bi-racial family returns to England. There, some 30 years later, social attitudes to mixed marriage, and persons of colour are still being felt by their son.
A Different Kind of Madness covers a similar time period. It opens towards the end of 1964 when the post-colonial nation is still bristling with change; shaking off the shackles of imperial rule, and ratting out the remaining residents with strong ties to the United Kingdom. Of the many whose lives are facing inevitable change are the (Eurasian) Burgher families.
But inter-racial tensions are already simmering beneath the surface of civilised society in 1942 when Emma, a Ceylonese Burgher, is forced to leave her brutal alcoholic husband. She takes shelter with extended family and looks for ways to independently support her two daughters. For a time, she is left with no choice but to leave Greta behind in the care of a wealthy childless couple.
Accordingly, both girls experience their new reality differently. The book focuses on the fate of Greta, the younger of the two, as she becomes increasingly rebellious, eventually becoming a mother herself. Then we see the disturbing manifestation of her own upbringing set against a glittering background of privilege, wealth and the looming spectre of social upheaval.
The book deftly incorporates themes of racism with the eternal plight of women in society, as it weaves a stunning tale of identity and belonging through the eyes of several generations. Along the way Schokman’s startling eloquence allows her to tackle graphic and disturbing events with a delicacy that surprises.
This profound and elegant book will stay with me for a long time; and I am in the fine company of the great Australian writer Alex Miller in predicting that it will become a classic.
Reviewed by Peta Stavelli
Sphinx Books UK