John Dollar is no ordinary novel. Every bit as disturbing as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) but crisper in its writing, its themes are the destruction of Western civilization under the duress of violence and isolation, anomie, the collapse of the social structures and values, and a consequent state of alienation. What endures is friendship. Charlotte Lewes, widowed by the Great War and devastated by her loss, leaves London to take a government post as teacher for the children of the British trading class in Rangoon. In the exotic life of the Far East she finds herself and a lover, John Dollar, a sailor who is an ironic and inadequate Christ figure. She, Dollar, and a number of the British community, three boats in all, voyage to the Andaman Islands to “claim” one, “The Island of Our Outlawed Dreams,” and rename it in honor of the birthday of George V, King of England. The voyage replicates and symbolizes the West’s historical “discoveries” of the East and its colonial exploitation of it. It also leads to the destruction of all the boats and death for all but two of the thirty-five persons taking the trip.
Limited mostly to the narrative perspectives of Charlotte and Menaka, the novel is unusually dramatic and scenic, Wiggins’ exquisite style a wonderfully supple instrument. In places spare and clearly expository, in others lapidary and imagistic, it is always alive and expressive, and never more so than when exploring the sensuous textures of Charlotte’s spiritual awakening in Rangoon. Her life, her re-birth, is made possible by the British habit of importing “Life As They Thought It Was,” everything—bone china, Irish linen, Boxing Day celebrations, and “Schooling with all else [giving] their daughters, blindly, to the teaching and the waking of the widow, Charlotte Lewes.” Her task is to inculcate the “standards of the Empire in English children”—standards which are to be severely tested and found wanting.
Charlotte’s charges are eight children from five families representing all levels of British colonial society: Norris “Nolly” Petherbridge, the daughter of the Reverend Mr. Petherbridge, a “florid and stentorian sermonizer of the Lollard School”; Shauna and Ruby “Oopi” Fraser, whose father is a diamond miner and owner of the boat The Ruby Girl; Sloan and Sybil Ogilvy, the twin daughters of Kitty and Harry Ogilvy, a merchant; Amanda Sutcliffe, the oldest of the children and the daughter of Amanda and Edward Sutcliffe, “a tall horse-faced Etonian who sailed for sport”; Gabriella “Gaby” de Castro y Ortiz, of Portuguese descent, whose grandfather makes kites and runs around nude, his mind damaged by cholera and yellow fever; and Jane Napier, the younger child of Colonel Napier, whose son was killed in the war and whose wife committed suicide shortly thereafter. Added to the groups is Menaka “Monica” or “Monkey” Lawrence, the half-breed daughter of a British man and Ammi, a Burmese woman.
Charlotte meets John Dollar in a scene marked by both mysticism and realism. Attracted to the dolphins, mystical animals that swim in the lake near Rangoon, Charlotte goes out before sunrise every morning to search for them. One night, she sees them playing with the image of the moon on the water. She finds herself swimming in the lake, the dolphins surfacing around her, touching her, swimming with her until daybreak and then disappearing. She then becomes aware of the light and of a figure that seems to be a “dolphin running upright, taking off his shirt and running toward her on his legs, a vision of a man who ran toward her across a field of light, this man who rushed to her as if he lived for nothing else but running to her, on the water.” Taken all together, the elements of Dollar’s name (there may be a hint of “dolor,” suggesting “the Man of Sorrows”), his walking on water, his running on a field of light, and the later elements woven carefully into the narrative create the aspect of Dollar as a Christ figure. A sailor, about thirty-five, he “reads for life,” and he falls in love with the widow. Their love is so intense that it completes the task of bringing Charlotte back to life. He names his boat The Charlotte in her honor. Their love, however, is doomed by an event that becomes the type of the Empire and its destruction.
Setting sail in three boats to make a proper claim of a sixteen-square-mile island, named by Marco Polo “The Island of Our Outlawed Dreams,” the group of thirty-five, including the schoolgirls and seven boy scouts, stages a ceremony of landing on the beach with royal standard to claim it for the Crown, all properly recorded on film “for posterity.” The connection between such colonial activities and the pernicious values which underlie them is made explicit by Sutcliffe, owner of The...
(The entire section is 1995 words.)