The Hamilton Case

The Hamilton Case

3.5 4
by Michelle de Kretser

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"Having come of age on the island nation of Ceylon, Sam Obeysekere is a lawyer whose life is guided by the British culture that dominates his homeland. Educated at Oxford, with a dazzling career in his sights, Sam is more English than the English. Only his flamboyant, unruly mother, exiled to a jungle estate, reminds him of his family's real heritage and a different… See more details below

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"Having come of age on the island nation of Ceylon, Sam Obeysekere is a lawyer whose life is guided by the British culture that dominates his homeland. Educated at Oxford, with a dazzling career in his sights, Sam is more English than the English. Only his flamboyant, unruly mother, exiled to a jungle estate, reminds him of his family's real heritage and a different set of home truths." Sam's undoing arrives in the form of the Hamilton case, a scandalous murder that shakes the upper echelons of island society. Guided by grandiose visions of Sherlock Holmes, he becomes convinced he can solve the mysterious case - and that his good standing with the English will insulate him from the unrest the case has exposed. In the end, Sam grapples with a life that has been "a series of substitutions," the darkest of human misfortunes.

Editorial Reviews

William Boyd
The Hamilton Case does enchant, certainly, but -- more important -- the book admirably and resolutely sees the world as it really is.
The New York Times
Chris Lehmann
In its patient, layered portrait of a man's colossal folly in acquiring an entirely mistaken view of his role in life, The Hamilton Case -- originally published last year in de Kretser's adopted homeland of Australia -- has earned many comparisons with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. Yet while de Kretser does share some of Ishiguro's icy precision in eliciting her characters' crabbed delusions, she has produced something finally warmer and more compassionate than Ishiguro's chilling novel. For even as she constructs an elegant, pointed cautionary tale against the false comforts of overly tidy narrative certainties, de Kretser also denies readers the easy luxury of shuddering primly at Sam's inhumanity.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
De Kretser's accomplished second novel (after 2000's The Rose Grower), set in the author's native Sri Lanka in the years before its independence in 1948, is as much a haunting character study as it is an elusive murder mystery and a deep exploration of colonialism. At the heart of the story is Sam Obeysekere, a brilliant Ceylonese prosecutor and perfect English gentleman who isn't, of course, English. Born into a privileged but unstable family his "Pater" intentionally squanders their wealth; his "Mater" sleeps around, smashes expensive crystal and feels a "massive indifference" to her son; and his beloved sister seems bent on self-destruction Sam, as an adult, focuses on his young son and his career. By all accounts, he's prospering, able to take his place beside the island's ruling class of Brits, Dutch burghers and Portuguese. But when he offers to help solve the murder of an English tea grower shot dead in the jungle, Sam makes a "central mistake" that destabilizes his life and, in a way, the English-dominated life of his whole "mongrel" nation. De Kretser's self-deluding protagonist will no doubt remind readers of the butler in The Remains of the Day: it's a sharp portrayal of assimilation that she manages to make complex and even poignant ("Are we to become a nation capable of talking only to itself, a lunatic on the world stage?"). But Sam is his own unique and problematic self, and like everything else in this lush, uneasy world, from the secondary characters to the ghost-haunted jungle, he is capable of shocking. De Kretser's fine, brooding, mischievous style is sure to captivate fans of serious literary fiction. Agent, Sarah Lutyens. (May) Forecast: The Hamilton Case got great reviews in the U.K., and interviewers seemed positively charmed by de Kretser herself. With a four-city author tour and national advertising, this Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick should find itself a sizable and appreciative audience. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
At the heart of de Kretser's dark and twisted second novel (after The Rose Grower) is a murder trial, with which Oxford-educated lawyer Sam Obeysekere hopes to make his career. Born into the moneyed class of colonial Ceylon, he is continually thwarted in his ambitions to be accepted by the ruling British. Then Hamilton, an English coffee grower, is found murdered, and as the appointed prosecutor Sam believes he can solve the case-and win a judicial appointment in the bargain. Suspicion shifts from two native workers to Hamilton's friend and estate manager (also English), whose pregnant young wife takes the stand to refute his alibi and provide his motive-her husband had become enraged when she confessed that Hamilton had been stalking and harassing her. Many years later, long after Sam's personal and professional fortunes have foundered, the truth is revealed in a short story by an old schoolmate. Although there is little to admire in Sam's heartless, conniving character, readers will be drawn in by de Kretser's fine writing, evocative descriptions of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and swift pacing. The author is Sri Lankan and lives in Australia. For most public libraries.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In pre-Independence Ceylon, an arrogant native prosecutor misreads the British rulers he reveres-and gets his comeuppance. 1902: Sam Obeysekere is born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), of a family that's part of the colony's elite. Maud, his mother, is a great beauty, his father an amiable spendthrift. Sam believes in justice, the British Empire, and, above all, himself, the firstborn (when he senses a potential rival in baby Leo, he wills his sister Claudia to smother the infant). By the time he graduates from Oxford and returns to Ceylon as a barrister, his father is dead, the fortune gone, and Maud has engineered Claudia's marriage to Jaya, Sam's detested contemporary, a philanderer and demagogue. But Sam is undaunted. As God's gift to the courtroom, he knows the money will roll in, and it does. A judgeship beckons. Then the Hamilton case erupts. The murder of the English tea planter baffles the authorities until Sam's intervention nets a suspect. Sam is a celebrity! But, alas, the suspect is another Englishman. Sam's belief that the English prize justice over tribal solidarity proves naive, and, though his career still flourishes, all hope of a judgeship is dead. Meanwhile, Claudia has killed herself and her baby. Sam avenges her death by banishing his impoverished mother to the family estate in the jungle, driving the former socialite into eccentricity and madness. Back in Colombo, Sam marries a plain heiress, Leela, whom he treats brutally. Throughout, de Kretser (The Rose Grower, 2000) writes beautifully, but her structure is awkward (we end with a meaty postscript from a minor character), and she kills off her characters at such a clip (at least 12 deaths, mostly violent) that we havelittle sense of evolving relationships. Overall, an impressive re-creation of a vanished colonial culture and its contradictions, but not a happy fit with the domestic drama of the tormented Obeysekeres.
From the Publisher
Praise for The Rose Grower:
“Beautifully written, full of wit and pathos and evocative images…Michelle de Kretser’s final pages are a triumph, quietly moving and with only one victor: a deep red rose.” — Guardian

The Rose Grower is much more than a love story. It’s an intelligent novel that breathes brilliant life into a pivotal period in Western history.” — Boston Globe

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Product Details

Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.66(h) x (d)

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'I always made it my business, at least, to know the part thoroughly'


A Wise Child

A name is the first story that attaches itself to a life. Consider mine: Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere. It tells of geography, history, love and uncertainty. I was born on an island suspended midway on the golden trade route between East and West - a useful bauble, fingered and pocketed by the Portuguese, Dutch and British in turn. In 1902, when I was born, Sir Alban Marriott was Governor and he agreed to be my godfather. How could he refuse? He had been in thrall to my mother ever since she sent him the skin of a leopard she had shot, along with a note. I shall call on you between five and six this evening. The skin is for the small blue reception room, which is ideally suited to fornication and whatnot. Her name was Maud and she was a great beauty. Also a first-rate shot. In Scotland she had stalked deer with the Prince of Wales; his performance, she reported, was mediocre. He presented her with a brooch fashioned from an eagle's talon mounted on silver and onyx. Mater dismissed it as monumentally obvious and palmed it off on her stewardess in lieu of a tip on her voyage home.

My father insisted on calling me Stanley, although my mother hated the name. I have often pondered the significance of Pater's uncharacteristic resolve. His father, too, was a Stanley, so he might simply have been affirming family tradition. On the other hand, might his assertion of my paternal provenance betray some anxiety about it? My mother had a certain reputation. It was alleged that she once swam in a jungle pool wearing only her bloomers, even though there were gentlemen and snakes present. Half of Colombo society followed the lead of Lady Marriott, who was stout and afflicted with shingles, in cutting her dead. Mater said Stanley was fit only for a peon, so it was just as well my initials spelt Sam. These days there is no one left to remember that I was ever called anything else.

Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere: between the names that define me as my father's child falls the shadow of an Englishman who didn't serve a second term as Governor. Shortly after his death eight years ago a package from a firm of London solicitors found its way to my desk. It contained a small murky oil painting of a large and largely unclad female gathering flowers and berries against a backdrop of broken marble columns in a woodland glade. The artist - quite unknown to the works of reference I have consulted - signed himself Tom Baltran. The executor's letter accompanying the painting explained that the Baltrans and the Marriotts were cousins. Moreover, it continued, the Hon. Thomas was descended on the distaff side from the first Dukeof St Albans, Charles II's illegitimate son by Nell Gwynne. The artist's hefty nymph was held, in family lore, to represent the orange-seller, but this was purely speculative. Sir Alban, wrote his solicitor, was most anxious for this painting, the gem of his small collection, to pass to you. He retained the warmest memories of his years in Ceylon, and often referred to happy times spent in the company of your mother.

An ambiguous legacy, wouldn't you say? I keep the painting in a cabinet, along with Sir Alban's other gift, a silver eggcup presented on the occasion of my christening. Now and then I set these objects before me and study them. An egg, a mistress, a bastard son: their message seems unequivocal. But the testimony of signs is unreli-able. Within minutes I have reasoned that an eggcup is a wholly conventional gift on the part of a godparent, and that the Hon. Thomas's daub points only to the ill-judged sentimentality of a nonagenarian. The argument prevails for a brief interval; then doubt creeps in again. These sessions always end the same way: I cross to my mirror where reassurance waits in the solid evidence of my flesh.

If you wish to ascertain a man's lineage, read his face not his birth certificate.Myskin is as darkas myfather's, our branch of the Obeysekeres being famously black. Like Pater, I am of average height and inclined to portliness in age. We share a high forehead, thick, springing hair, a curved nose and assertive ears. We are not handsome men. But we have presence. Whereas Sir Alban, as he appears in my parents' photograph album, is tall and hollow-chested, with pointed features and an entirely unconvincing moustache. He clasps his left wrist in his right hand, holding himself together.

By now it will be apparent that my pen is not constrained by decorum. I have always set great store by the truth, a virtue not usually prized in my profession. But it was my ability to see accurately and to speak the truth, without concern for convention or fear of reprisal, that made my name in a different sense. The very notoriety of the Hamilton case has seen it shrouded in the fog of rumour, conjecture and misinformation that passes for analysis in the drawing rooms of this country. In these pages I intend to set down the facts of the matter at last.

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