A Disappearance in Fiji

Nilima Rao

A Disappearance in Fiji
Format
Paperback
Publisher
Allen & Unwin
Country
Australia
Published
6 June 2023
ISBN
9781760688271

A Disappearance in Fiji

Nilima Rao

1914, Fiji: Akal Singh, 25, would rather be anywhere but this tropical paradise - or, as he calls it, 'this godforsaken island'. After a promising start to his police career in Hong Kong, Akal has been sent to the farflung colony of Fiji as punishment for a humiliating professional mistake. Lonely and grumpy, Akal plods through his work and dreams of a return to Hong Kong, or even his native India.

An indentured Indian woman goes missing from a sugarcane plantation and Fiji's newspapers scream 'kidnapping', just as the Indian indentured servitude program is being scrutinised for alleged abuses. Fiji's inspector-general reluctantly assigns Akal the case, as the senior Indian police officer available. Akal, eager to achieve redemption, agrees - but soon finds himself far more invested than he could ever have expected.

When he arrives at the plantation to investigate, Akal must confront the brutal realities of the indentured workers' existence and the racism of the British colonisers in Fiji - along with his own thorny notions of identity and class. His interrogations of the white plantation owners, Indian indentured labourers and local Fijians yield only one conclusion: there is far more to this case than meets the eye.

Nilima Rao's sparkling debut mystery offers an unflinching look at the impact of colonialism, even as it brims with wit, vibrant characters and fascinating historical detail.

Review

Nilima Rao’s debut novel arrives with a glowing endorsement from the prolific and adored Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, who describes A Disappearance in Fiji as ‘an utterly charming novel’ and Rao as ‘an author well worth discovering’. It’s a recommendation to thrill any author, and, more to the point, it’s accurate.

From the outset, there are clear and enjoyable parallels with another enormously successful and long-running crime series – albeit a televised one – Death in Paradise. However, as the title suggests, this tale is set much closer to home, and against the dynamically explored, complex colonial world of First World War-era Fiji.

In a classic fish-out-of-water situation, 25-year-old Sergeant Akal Singh, a police officer with the British Raj, has recently arrived in Suva as punishment for a misstep in his previously stellar career in Hong Kong. His new posting with the Fijian Constabulary is less than glamorous, and he is somewhat isolated. Luckily, he has found an amusing and kind friend in Taviti, a Fijian corporal of a similar age with whom he works.

If only he could also find and catch the Night Prowler (a peeping tom preying on children), or solve his new case, that of missing Indian woman and indentured plantation worker Kunti. Her employer blithely maintains that she’s simply run off, but a local priest insists she has been kidnapped. He claims she would never have left her daughter, and had no reason to bolt when she was already three years into her five-year term on the plantation – freedom had been on the horizon; something does not add up.

A Fijian Indian Australian based in Melbourne, Rao has an interest in this period and has clearly done her research. A Disappearance in Fiji is immersive and beguiling cosy (yet tropical!) crime that readers will be pleased to find is the first in a series.

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