Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Edge of Eden.
The glossy terrain of an island paradise is pitted with potholes, the path to contentment replete with superstitious segues and selfish motives. On the ship approaching the Seychelles Islands in 1960, husband and wife Rupert and Penelope Weston are in disagreement - he seeking to overthrow the bureaucratic chains of his government job, she to survive island life with their two daughters, eight-year-old Zara and three-year-old Chloe.
Even the children bear the contrasts that define the novel, Zara dark and mischievous, Chloe sweet and innocent with a head of blonde curls. While Zara surreptitiously tortures her younger sister, Rupert ignores Penelope, mentally going native in anticipation of the freedoms waiting on the shore. This is a family in trouble long before ever stepping foot in their new island home.
In a clear voice with perfect pitch, Benedict captures the essence of British colonialism, Rupert consumed with his new position, grateful to have escaped London, like a child freed from expectations, the fecund islands beckoning. Penelope is overwhelmed from the start, vaguely resentful but determined to maintain the image of a supportive spouse, comforting herself with too many cocktails and bouts of depression when she rarely leaves her room.
The children run wild, especially Zara. She feasts upon native culture and imagines herself a practitioner of grigri, the powerful magic that protects the servants from the evil wishes of others. Unattended save by a careless servant’s daughter, Zara and Chloe fend for themselves, Penelope oblivious to her children’s need.
The Westons’ nanny/maid, Marguerite, attempts to warn Penelope when Rupert falls for his seductive native secretary, but by the time Penelope emerges from her fugue, Rupert has lost all sense of responsibility for his family, obsessed with his exotic lover. After a foolish dalliance of her own, Penelope is determined to recapture her husband’s affections, turning to Marguerite’s “bonhomme du bois” for a spell.
It is here that the separate wills of three females collide: Penelope; Joelle, the mistress who competes for Rupert’s love; and Zara, who seeks to cast the “devil worm” from her mother’s eye but causes irreparable harm through her childish determination to change the adults’ behavior. Whether or not these spells work, Mahe Island, the largest of the Seychelles where the drama takes place, is fertile territory for superstition, jealousy, and the thwarted passions of women.
As though drawn to the islands only to be destroyed, the Westons are no match for this Eden, either in temperament or strength of character. The pale English fade against the vivid colors and passions of a vibrant culture dominated by the slave trade and the colonization of the French and the British. That the innocent should suffer for the folly of the guilty is inevitable in a paradise inured to such tragedies. In sly, acerbic prose, Benedict tells this sad tale of love lost and won, of innocence betrayed, and of passion run aground on the tide of a child’s desperation.