I've owned this book for a long time -- its premise, a tale of 17th-century colonialism and 20th-century post-colonialism inspired by The Tempest, intrigued me -- but have only just got around to reading it. It's splendid, though occasionally a little too conscious of its erudition, a little too studiedly Literary.
The 17th-century scenes, set on Enfant-Beate (a pair of imaginary Caribbean islands), are splendidly baroque. Shakespeare's witch Sycorax is a healer: Ariel and Caliban her adopted children, both from elsewhere. The animals are tame, the springs are hot and transform everything to pearl, the English -- when they come -- are credibly brutal, ignorant and yet often well-meaning.
The 20th-century scenes -- London and Paris, focussing on the close-knit family descended from the original Kit Everard, and their 'family retainer' Serafine, a native of Enfant-Beate -- are rich in detail, though their style is quite different. The central character is Miranda, from her presence at the post-war christening of her 'sister-aunt' Xanthe to her eventual happy ending in the 1980s. She's doomed (or blessed) to feel too much: Xanthe, by contrast, is given a christening-wish by a genuine Princess, who blesses her with a lack of emotion. The story follows the girls from childhood in the shadow of Miranda's grandfather -- surely Prospero, in the guise of an ageing sportsman (Warner has invented Flinders: a marvellous game, a little like cricket but far more complex, which encodes key episodes in the colonisation of Enfant-Beate) -- to Miranda's brief escape to 1960s Paris, and their business venture in Enfant-Beate itself, peddling the hot springs as a modern-day Fountain of Youth to rich American tourists.
Warner's very good at evoking atmosphere -- from the stench of indigo production to the miasma of a London pea-souper, from a cheap hotel in Paris to the depths of South Kensington tube station. I'm only realising now how much she's left the reader to guess at, in terms of characterisation.
I do like the way she writes.
The emptiness in which all things revolve is blue ... Time was no other colour but blue, since distances were blue and water too. But when you enter into them, she saw now with sorrow, the blueness evaporates. It has no more substance than a smell.
reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place