Maia is an orphan who goes with her new governess to live with her nearest relatives in Brazil in the city of Manaus on the Amazon River, a city made rich by the local rubber plantations. On the way she meets Clovis, boy actor of a failing theatre company, who wants nothing more than to return to England. The relatives Maia is to stay with are good-for-nothings: the father, a poor businessman, spends money on his grotesque hobby of collecting eyes; the mother wages fanatic war against the insects that plague the house; the twin daughters, Maia’s age, are spiteful and greedy. Finally, Maia meets Finn, the son of the dead naturalist Bernard Taverner and his wife, a native of the Amazon. Finn is being sought by detectives from England who want him to come to England to fulfill his role as heir of a noble house; he wants nothing more than to stay as a naturalist in the jungle he loves.
A charming story, the book displays above all the author’s love for the city of Manaus on the Brazilian Amazon, a surprising gem of civilisation among the natural although dark splendour of the Amazon jungle. The characters are simple enough, cleanly sketched and attractive without sentiment. There is a certain fairy-tale air about the plot, but this is not taken to extremes. The story is set in a Victorian Age in which modesty and decency were taken (perhaps too) seriously. Miss Minton declares her independence by quietly losing her heavy corset, while the colonial English despise the simplicity of the natives, taking it as vulgarity. The native Indians are simple and loving, stripped of their land by the incoming settlers looking for good sources of rubber and then forced to work to harvest the rubber. The Carter family, greedy and feckless westerners, form a strong contrast, having cheated the Indians of the price for the land they use, and having disregarded the religious wishes of the natives. Others among the colonials are pleasant and cultured people, but on balance the imperial attitude towards native peoples is shown in a bad light.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.