Nilima Rao – A Disappearance in Fiji

Echo Publishing, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK
Australia, 2023
Cover design by Lisa White
Cover illustration by Nancy Liang

Nilima Rao’s debut crime fiction is set in Fiji in 1914 and is a damning indictment of colonialism and its cruelties. The system of indentured labour which brought tens of thousands of poverty-stricken Indian workers to Fiji to work on the sugar plantations was ripe for abuse.

Nilima Rao talks to Barbie about A Disappearance in Fiji

Those who recruited them had a vested interest in attracting workers and were unscrupulous in gaining signatures on harsh and inhumane contracts which the mostly illiterate workers could not read. So much for the abolition of slavery!

It is into this milieu that our hero Sergeant Akal Singh is sent after an indiscretion in Hong Kong, where he had been a rising star. He’s been investigating a long unsolved mystery of a night prowler, but is taken off that case temporarily when Kunti, a young Indian woman, goes missing. It is unclear initially if she has run away or come to harm and Singh begins the investigation with little enthusiasm.

However, when he travels to the sugar plantation where she had been employed and joins ranks with the redoubtable Dr Holmes, he starts to understand and sympathise with the situation of the ‘coolie’ workers and is determined not to whitewash the case.

Pressure from his superior in Totogo to sign off on a ‘runaway’ verdict is matched by pressure from the representative of the Indian government delegation to actually get to the bottom of what is happening on the plantations (politics in every direction).

Added to this is the voice of conscience represented by Dr Holmes, who cares deeply about the workers and whose dogged kindness rubs off on Singh the more he learns about the behaviour of the British sugar plantation owners.

The political shenanigans of Susan and Henry Parkins and the Plantation Association further muddy the waters. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is a systemic problem with the mistreatment and serious abuse of the workers and that this disappearance in Fiji is the tip of the iceberg.

In navigating Fijian society, Singh in aided by the son of a local chief, junior police officer Taviti. Both Taviti and Holmes provide foils for Singh as he gains a greater appreciation of his new surrounds. Taviti plays an almost Shakespearan fool role, indeed a fool with as much wit as Feste.

He proves invaluable to Singh when faced with the stonewalling class discrimination of the British plantation owners, as does Dr Holmes who, being British and a medico, is acceptable to them. Taviti also provides a buffer at times between Singh and his antagonistic police chief, Inspector Johnathon Thurstrom.

Throughout the story, chapters and sections are introduced with real excerpts from the Fiji Times of the day, the wry observations of the columnist who went by the name of Chop Chop. These serve the same purpose as a Greek chorus, keeping us attuned to the vox populi and giving us valuable historical background.

This is an altogether fascinating novel which simultaneously uncovers the shameful history of the indentured labour system in Fiji, paints a broad picture of Fijian, Indian and British colonial society of the time and delivers a ripping crime yarn.

Nilima Rao is an assured writer who demostrates great facility in drawing characters with whom we immediately feel an affinity or aversion. Her capacity to plumb the depths of characters from a wide spectrum of social and cultural backgrounds is remarkable.

She holds her reader’s interest as she gradually ekes out more and more details of the mystery along with an exploration of the complexity of human relationships. She portrays equally perceptively Divya, the child who misses her mother and hopes for her return, and the vitriolic self-serving Susan Parkins. Suffice it to say that we are happy to be led along the path of partial opinion.

I became deeply invested in the fortunes of Sergeant Akal Singh; others of like mind will be pleased to know that he will reappear in 2025 with a new mystery. This news is buoying, allowing us to believe in the capacity of the seeker of justice to persevere and to sometimes get a win.

Thank you to Echo Publishing for my review copy and to Nilima for both writing such a significant work and for spending time with me talking about the many issues it raises.