Book review: A Disappearance in Fiji, Nilima Rao

This debut novel is a classic mystery story with cultural importance.

In colonial Fiji, an Indian woman working on a sugarcane plantation goes missing, and an Indian Sikh sergeant is sent to investigate.

Akal Singh has just been transferred to Fiji from Hong Kong after a fall from grace early in his police career. He’s desperate to earn back the respect of his superiors, so when he’s assigned to look into the disappearance of a worker from the indentured servitude program, Singh takes the case very seriously.

Nilima Rao’s writing makes this an easy page-turner, and an exciting debut that is planned to be book one of a series. The clues are peppered throughout each chapter, with the mix of mystery and history making this an intriguing read. The rigorous research of time and place is nuanced and insightful and, as a reader, you can’t help but want to know more.

We learn that from 1879 to 1916, 60,000 Indians went to Fiji as indentured servants. Established by the Indian Government under British rule, the program was first seen as a promising prospect of a better life for the destitute. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the working conditions in this program were fraught with abuse and punishment. A Disappearance in Fiji sends the sergeant into the heart of that injustice. 

The multicultural melting pot of Fiji is represented through each vibrant character. The compassionate English doctor Holmes, who accompanies Singh to the sugarcane fields, is contrasted with the detestable plantation owners, Mr and Mrs Parker. The ethically questionable Fijian inspector general Thurstrom is diffused by the teasing and always witty Taviti. The Indian “coolie” (the pejorative colonial term for low-wage labourers) servants working on the sugarcane plantation are juxtaposed with our man-in-uniform, Singh. 

Interracial divides are gently explored through Singh’s friendships with Taviti and Dr Holmes, and thrown in the reader’s face through the slavery on the colonial plantations. But it’s the lack of urgency from the English and Fijian authorities in finding the missing woman that offers tragic insight into the very real dehumanisation of the colonised under British rule.

There are snippets of news articles in the novel, breaking up the plot and adding depth to life in Fiji during that time. In the author’s notes, Rao mentions that they are actual historical snippets of articles from The Fiji Times, which helps give even greater context to the events during which the story plays out. 

Singh is sent out to the plantation as the case is too trivial for the Fijian officers, yet he uses his “otherness” on “this godforsaken island” to connect with the labourers. His longing for home is captured delicately in his interviews, as he shares meals and memories of home with them.

The reader feels his joy drinking homemade nimbu pani with Magamma, an Indian woman who had completed her servitude contract at the plantation. But their conversation on the hardships that women faced during her time on the plantation leaves a sour aftertaste.

As Singh experiences the horrible conditions firsthand, he recognises his similarities with the indentured Indians, and sees with his very own eyes the impact of colonialism.

Read: Book review: I’d Rather Not, Robert Skinner

A Disappearance in Fiji has satisfying twists and turns, with the mystery all tied up in the final chapters. But it is the characters you want to stay with. Fortunately, if Rao’s plans for future books come to pass, this will just be the beginning of further adventures for her policeman.

A Disappearance in Fiji, Nilima Rao
Publisher: Echo Publishing
ISBN: 9781760688271
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 280pp
Publication date: 6 June 2023
RRP: $32.99

Lisette Drew is a writer, theatre maker and youth literature advocate, who has worked nationally and overseas on over 50 theatrical productions. Her play, Breakwater, was shortlisted for two playwriting awards and her novel The Cloud Factory was longlisted for The Hawkeye Prize. In 2022 she received a Kill Your Darlings Mentorship and was a City of Melbourne Writer-in-Residence. Lisette shares her love for stories and storytelling running writing and theatre workshops for children.