Educated at Oxford, Sam Obeysekere never entertains a moment of self-doubt, embracing everything British, his values are dictated by the strict conventions of a race offended by the inherent messiness of his native Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Fashioning himself in the Occupier's image, Sam practices law in Ceylon with typical pomposity, with the same conceit that marks him by classmates at school: “Obey by name, Obey by nature”, a phrase that haunts his life.
Long before Obeysekere has established his scholarly reputation, a planter is found murdered, and Sam is given the Hamilton Case to prosecute. This should be a plum assignment, a career-maker and an opportunity for Obeysekere to display his mastery of the courtroom, yet the affair is fraught with contradictions from the beginning. Obvious clues point to natives as the perpetrators of the brutal murder, but Sam charges an Englishman, a friend of the murdered man. Confident he has posited the perfect criminal scenario, in reality Obeysekere has created a conundrum for himself: a white man accused of the murder of a man of color in a country ruled by British hubris. His misperception of the true nature of the task is a metaphor for Obeysekere's life, his name attached in perpetuity to a convoluted confusion of mores, suspicion and racial innuendo, discussed for years without resolution.
Whether he is an innocent victim of British Imperialism, albeit a willing one, or an emotionally inept young man searching for peer acceptance, Obeysekere wraps himself in a curt denial of family and country, as early childhood distortions reach like tentacles into his adult life. This foreign mentality usurping the identity of an entire culture for over a century, when the English finally desert the continent, Sam is adrift in a civilization that has little relevance to the Ceylon of his imagination.
Child of the British Occupation, Sam critically examines those in his orbit yet remains emotionally in thrall to his dramatic, beautiful mother, his simpering, ineffective sister, and later his wife, a woman he treats with complete disdain. Obeysekere's wife is a pawn for his entrenched prejudices against women and his general scorn for the weaker sex, his marriage one of convenience. Surrounded by teeming crowds, Sam lives in isolation, his days carefully constructed in the rigid, unbending English manner. Much later in life, Sam is given to introspection on the nature of his choices, but by this time he is alone, estranged from his son who rejects this absurdly judgmental value system. Belatedly, it occurs to Obeysekere that everything could have been different.
Author Michelle de Kretser guards her secrets carefully. Obeysekere’s raison d’etre is based on a faulty premise, resulting in a slightly skewed and greatly distorted existence. Carefully nuanced, Kretser's transcendent prose offers a precise and penetrating vision of social hypocrisy against a remarkable canvas of profligate island beauty, laced with the immediacy of decay. The Hamilton Case is a heady mix of mystery and myth, a kaleidoscope of shifting shapes and colors. Although it is compared to Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, I find The Hamilton Case more reminiscent of C.S. Godshalk’s Kalimantaan, for its wealth of lush images and the contrast of Victorian convention in tenuous coexistence with a violent culture.