Set in Trinidad on the verge of its independence from England, the latest novel from American Book Award-winning author Elizabeth Nunez begins with a deceptively nasty description of Inspector Mumsford, a prissy little man picked to investigate a possible rape. His racism, like that of many of his fellow colonials, is deep, virulent and unquestioned. What's deceptive about that description is that the reader immediately fingers the inspector as the villain yet in this angry, skillfully written book, there's villainy far, far worse than his.
The characters in Prospero's Daughter are loosely based on those in The Tempest, down to the mad scientist Gardner as Prospero, his innocent daughter Virginia as Miranda, the savage mixed-race Carlos as Caliban, and the sylph-like servant Ariana as Ariel. The twist is this: where Shakespeare's Prospero always struck this reviewer, at least, as an eccentric but benevolent control freak, Nunez's Dr. Gardner is the true savage. It is Carlos, the young man who Gardner enslaves after taking over his house and property, then accuses of interfering with his daughter, who is the civilized gentleman. Indeed, Gardner's monstrousness knows no limit. The reader hurries through the pages to find out what terrible retribution must happen to him. In the end, you still don't think he's suffered enough.
The man's real name isn't even Gardner, for one thing. He changed it after he fled England for Trinidad, taking motherless Virginia with him. After foisting himself upon Carlos' household, his first act is one of conscienceless destruction: Gardner chops down all of the boy's beloved fruit trees to make room for his unnaturally green lawn. He will destroy much more before he's through, but not the love that grows between Carlos and his daughter.
Nunez is a gifted writer, and her story not only recalls the despoiling of the Caribbean by Europeans, but brings hope for reconciliation and healing in the triumph of Carlos and Virginia. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.