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Book Author: Nilima Rao

A DISAPPEARANCE IN FIJI by Nilima Rao: Book Review

Fiji is, to me, one of those magical places almost outside reality.  A republic in the South Pacific, it consists of more than 300 islands, of which slightly over 100 are inhabited by native Fijians, Indians, Australians, and members of other island nations.  Its history encompasses native rule and English rule, and it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary as an independent nation in 2020.  Its history, however, has not always been a happy one.

A country rich in alcoholic spirits, minerals, wood, sugar, and cotton, it was ripe for exploitation by colonial powers.  In 1914, the time A Disappearance in Fiji takes place, Fiji is a Crown Colony.  It is subject to the British practice of bringing indentured servants, working for miniscule pay, to the islands as workers on the numerous and profitable sugar and cotton plantations.  This practice lasted from 1833 until 1920.

Sergeant Akal Singh was a star in the Hong Kong police force, but a major professional mistake resulted in his being sent to Suva, the capital of Fiji, where he is definitely unwanted by most of his colleagues and the head of the colony’s police force.

Since he is the highest ranking Indian in the colony, police inspector-general Jonathon Thurstrom reluctantly assigns Akal his first major case, that of a young Indian woman, an indentured servant on a sugar planation, who has either run away or been abducted, depending on whom one believes.

Only because the Catholic priest in Suva has written a letter to the local press expressing outrage at Kunti’s disappearance and the lack of follow-up, as well as the upcoming visit of an Indian dignitary, is Thurstrom willing to send Singh to investigate.

The plantation where Kunti worked is owned by Susan and Henry Parkins, a wealthy English couple highly placed in Fiji’s society.  Mrs. Parkins denies any knowledge of what goes on with “the coolies,” a derogatory term for the workers used by the British.  She doesn’t know, she tells Akal, and she doesn’t care.

The plantation is everything Akal fears.  The workers live in windowless huts without sanitary facilities.  Their wages are paid by the day, and if they don’t work for a day due to illness they don’t get paid and a day is added to their contract.  They come to Fiji in search of a better life than they had or could have in India, but the reality is far short of their hopes.  And once there, there is no way to return home.

Mr. Parkins tells Singh that Kunti hasn’t been abducted and that he believes that she ran away with the plantation’s overseer.  However, the other workers don’t believe that, telling the sergeant that Kunti would never have left her young daughter behind.  Thus the investigation begins.

Nilima Rao is a Fijian Indian Australian, having been born in Fiji of Indian heritage and raised in Australia, a combination not too unusual in Oceania, as she writes in the Author’s Note at the end of her debut novel.  A Disappearance in Fiji is a fascinating mystery, with well-written characters and a plot that will keep you reading until the last page.  You can read more about the author at various sites on the web.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.