Simply put, The Hamilton Case by Sri Lankan author Michelle de Kretser is one of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read. Set in 1930s Sri Lanka then called Ceylon and a colony of Britain de Krester's second novel is captivating, intelligent, erudite and devilishly funny. It is not in the poetic style of fellow Sri Lankan Michael Ondaatje. Nor, despite the claim on the book's back cover, does it resemble Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, which displays more sweep but less virtuosity. De Kretser wastes not a word, and her wit is rapier sharp.

The novel's title would suggest that it is a detective story, and it is, in part, as details come to light about the murder scandal that haunts the once wealthy and influential Obeysekere family. But the novel focuses largely on the evolution of that family. Sam, the lawyer son. Maud, the dissolute mother. Claudia, sister to Sam and wife of Sam's main adversary, Jaya. In later life, Jaya takes up the dubious cause of reserving Sri Lanka for the Sinhalese against the recently arrived Tamils. The author compares such tactics to the divide et impera program of the British Empire.

Sri Lanka is a melting pot due to its role in trade between Europe and the Far East. Sam even suggests that "there's not a Ceylonese without mongrel blood in his veins." But the island is fraught with ethnic tension. Like the case in Forster's A Passage to India, the Hamilton case is complicated by issues of racial inequality. Meanwhile the novel's native characters are generally more English than the English.

One of the novel's more pleasing diversions is the waging of what Martin Amis has called "the war against clichŽ." Both Maud and a Tamil named Shivanathan are guilty of composing hackneyed phrases and images. De Kretser spears them mercilessly, while displaying her skill in producing fresh analogies ("he had the air of an aggrieved rodent"). Indeed, perhaps the most impressive thing about The Hamilton Case is simply how beautifully it makes the English language sing. Kenneth Champeon writes from Thailand.

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