THE island of Banda, where No rah Lofts’s new novel is set, really exists, a very small dot on a sizable map of the Netherlands Indies. One would be surprised if it did not. The world of which Mrs. Lofts writes may be long ago and far away, but the pattern of events against which her seventeenth-century Dutch planters move is familiar enough — trade, invasion, colonial exploitation, squabbles among the victors over division of the loot, revolt of the subjugated natives, general massacre, and suppression of the revolt.
There is nothing tenuous about the large framework of Silver Nutmeg. Mrs. Lofts apologizes for the absence of Specific local geography, occasioned by the Japanese occupation of the island. She need not have done so. The conviction with which she presents the operation of the Dutch East India Company’s nutmeg monopoly, the colonists’ preoccupation with crops and finance, the muddled civil and military affairs of the island, and the lavish emptiness of life there more than make up for the indefinite location of a few landmarks.
Thanks to the exotic affairs of the island and Mrs. Lofts’s genuine gift for storytelling, the book is absorbing reading. Silver Nutmeg tells the story of Annabet van Goens, married in Holland by proxy and shipped out to Banda to a husband she had never seen. This Evert Haan started life as the son of one of her grandfather’s less reputable tenant farmers, but with the van Goens money gone in speculation, and Annabet’s looks gone in a bout with rheumatic fever, her family could not afford to quibble. Evert was so disgusted by his bride’s battered appearance that he arranged to have her murdered by the all-efficient Malay holy man, Shal Ahmi.
Annabet, however, was not murdered. She recovered her beauty and acquired Evert’s love, which she no longer wanted, having fallen in love herself with an English smuggler. The unhappy partnership of Evert and his wife — Annabet wavering from gratitude to guilt to annoyance, and Evert rocketing from devotion to abusive jealousy — arrived at a tentative truce only when Shal Ahmi’s rebellion threatened both their lives.
The minor figures in the story, agents and soldiers and sea captains, are almost all vivid and attractive. It is strange that Annabet and Evert should be totally lacking in charm, since Mrs. Lofts can bestow it lavishly on her other people, but the truth is these two wear out their welcome. They are reasonable people, plausible, understandably confused by their own misdirected affairs, but they arouse very little sympathy. Perhaps they are intended to illustrate the defects of a purely materialistic society.
PHOEBE LOU ADAMS