Title: The Casuarina Tree
Author: W Somerset Maugham
Genre: Historical Short Stories
Blurb: The Casuarina Tree is a collection of short stories set in 1920s Malaya by W. Somerset Maugham that came out of travels he paid for by working for the British Secret Service as a spy. It was first published by the UK publishing house, Heinemann, in 1926. The Casuarina tree of the title is native to Australasia and Southeast Asia, often used to stabilise soils. In Maugham’s foreword, he says the title was a metaphor for "the English people who live in the Malay Peninsula and in Borneo because they came along after the adventurous pioneers who opened the country to Western civilisation." He likens the pioneers to mangroves reclaiming a swamp, and the expatriates to Casuarinas, who came later and served there. He then learned that his idea was incorrect botanically but decided it would suggest the planters and administrators who for him, were in their turn the organisers and "protectors" of society. The book and the author are true to their times but express views and language that are considered politically incorrect today.
My Thoughts: I chose to read this after my visit to the Raffles Hotel Long bar in Singapore where Maugham use to have many a tipple and gather gossip to base his stories on. According to the historian at Raffles Hotel Maugham use to ask for a table to be set up behind a frangipani tree out in the courtyard where he could overhear stories of intrigue, lust and murder. All the stories in THE CASUARINA TREE have similar themes running through them – class division, racism, adultery and cultural belief differences. The six stories are:
Before the Party – What really happened to recently widowed Millicent’s husband in Borneo?
P & O – On a cruise back to England a man finds out what happens when one betrays a native mistress.
The Outstation – A bitter battle of the classes, two work colleagues in a remote office in the jungle fight for dominance with only one possible outcome.
The Force of Circumstance – When Guy brings his newly married English rose Doris to his home in Malay she is not prepared for his past.
The Yellow Streak – Returning from an upriver meeting Izzart is charged with the safety of Campion – when they face death in a tidal bore the outcome leaves one of the men full of guilt and fear of his cowardice being discovered.
The Letter – mild-mannered Leslie Crosbie is on trial in Singapore for the murder of a man who she says was attempting to rape her while her husband was away. Her lawyer expects her acquittal to be just a matter of a rubber stamp – then the letter is discovered.
I was enchanted with all these stories – another time and place entirely. Sure we can look back and say how dreadfully racist, snobby and sexist life was then – but that is how it was. I have another Maugham book on the go at the moment.
Rating: A – Excellent. I could not put it down.
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