Dark secrets in the steamy jungle of British colonial Malaya are the subject of this engrossing retelling of William Somerset Maugham’s short story, The Force of Circumstance.
Author Rosie Milne sticks broadly to the original plot and begins the story in 1924 in the remote outpost of Kluanak. Frank, the district officer, is approaching the age of 30 and decides he is in need of an English wife. He wagers a friend $500 that he can find one on a four-month trip home and duly departs for England, abandoning Nony, his nonya, or native mistress, and their four children. Frank chooses to spend some of his leave in a hotel in Dorset.
Here he meets Rose, who, at the age of 23, finds herself in need of a husband. After a whirlwind romance, and despite her mother’s wishes, the pair marry and head off back to Malaya where Frank waits to hear the location of his next posting. In a horrible twist of fate, because Frank has been less than frank about his existing family, he is sent back to Kluanak where his existing family awaits. From here, in a narrative radically different to the original, the course for disaster is set.
Whereas in Somerset Maugham’s story, details of the unwinding of the love triangle are brief, Milne deliciously fleshes out Rose’s discovery of Frank’s legacy. The suspense is ramped up as Rose is slow to identify the mixed-race children in the nearby village as her husband’s while Frank’s scheme to buy Nony’s silence initially appears to be successful. As realization dawns, Rose’s revulsion and humiliation emerge from both her inner thoughts and through the letters she writes to her mother and friends. The couple become the object of gossip picked over by the rest of the white community.
Interweaved through the drama is the jungle itself and the river winding through it. Milne includes meticulously researched details of everyday native activities which vividly evoke the village, its people and their customs. Colonial life is also fully realized with some occasionally beautiful descriptions of nature:
Now they were sitting together in the dark, in rattan chairs they’d pulled to the very edge of their verandah, so they could enjoy the stars sprinkled like salt across the heavens.
With a retelling of an old story, there is room for modernization.
For Somerset Maugham, the native wife is mute and rarely glimpsed, but Milne gives her a leading role. Certainly Nonya is a potentially destructive force and it is easy to read parallels between her character with Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic. But she is no victim. Although it’s arguable whether the word “feminism” would be in her lexicon, a subject she ponders for a couple of paragraphs, in the main she is presented as proactive and pragmatic, if a little underhand. In this way, she forms a sharp contrast to the dithering, hand-wringing colonialists who are supposed to be her superiors.
The portrait of those superiors is perhaps the novel’s greatest achievement. Milne captures exactly the British tendency to push serious issues under the carpet, in the hope they’ll disappear, and carry on as if nothing had happened. Milne has spotted, quite accurately, that such behavior, which in modern terminology is called “ignoring the elephant in the room”, has not been updated since the time of Somerset Maugham.