"The Far Field" By Edie Meidav

In an eagerly anticipated debut novel, a colonialist in Ceylon faces political deception, erotic intrigue and the failure of his own ideals.

By Amy Benfer
Published April 19, 2001 7:44PM (EDT)

It's 1936, and Henry Fyre Gould leaves behind his wife and small son to go to Ceylon, a tiny island off India's coast (now called Sri Lanka). Just coming off of an abortive attempt to find liberation through the free-love doctrine and seances of New York spiritualist salons, Gould, the protagonist of "The Far Field," Edie Meidav's smooth, lush first novel, hopes to build a model Buddhist village. He's armed with nothing more than his own ideals, which, though magnimous and heroic in scope, are also, unfortunately, informed by an understanding of the Ceylonese language and culture that is cursory at best.

Gould is undeterred by the failures of the previous tenant of his estate, a British colonialist named Dennis Wooves, whose frustrations and eventual unraveling are detailed in the journals he has left behind. Gould ascribes Wooves' failure to the "English belief in vertical order," a fate he believes he will avoid by creating a utopian, caste-free society in Ceylon in which "any urchin could become a learned Buddhist philosopher, any good student could write treatises, any child could give birth to monastic lineages."

Of course, Gould's classless utopia is entirely informed by his own American vision. At first, Gould's natural optimism is buttressed by his coterie of confidantes: There is an aide whom Gould relies upon to translate the Ceylonese language and culture (Gould describes him as "the kind of ally he had always wanted, the kind people will often die for"), and who, unbeknowst to him, is working as a spy for the British. There is his beautiful maid, a woman with a secret past who appears to be anywhere between 17 and 33; she keeps his house and becomes the subject of his erotic fixations, though she also has her own plans for him.

The eventual unspooling of the confident but culturally blind Gould's grand schemes -- and his sanity -- comes as no surprise. But while Meidav's lens is panoramic, she manages to keep her focus human in scale, providing her readers with a virtual novelistic treatise on the colonial experience, articulated in the accumulated tiny, believable details of her characters' daily lives.

Next: A Canadian-raised orphan returns to her grandparents' Indian village

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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