Boyagoda’s novel follows the sprawling life of Sam Kandy, who begins as a nobody in a village in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and ends up a self-made shipping magnate with three marriages and 16 children. When he is seven, an astrologer tells Sam’s low-caste parents that their son will ruin them, and his father later abandons him at a monastery. Through vast ambition and predatory instincts, however, this “no one from nowhere” manages to escape the temple by selling on the streets of Colombo, then hopping on a ship to Australia to work for a wealthy man, whose dog, he notes, sleeps on a rug thicker than his father’s mattress.
Sam Kandy (a name he invents) is propelled by an early promise: if he ever goes back to his ancestral village, he’ll “return like it had never been done before.” Through relentless work and the trading opportunities afforded by the world wars, he manages to climb the social ladder in Ceylon. But this beggar in a world that has given him nothing can’t seem to escape his early rejection: not through wealth nor through his upwardly mobile first marriage to Alice, daughter of the village headman. He sends his family clothing, toys, and cars, but remains indifferent to their emotional needs. His rough beginnings do not fully explain the extent of his cruelty. When a man mistakes Sam for Alice’s driver, and his wife does not console him about the error, Sam, “raging that the fate-roped world was holding his head in place,” kills her.
Boyagoda uses language as deliberately as a poet to depict the politics and lushness of colonial and post-colonial Ceylon. But there’s sometimes a gap with “historyless” Sam. His lack of an interior life renders him unknowable and, often, unlikeable. One is left wanting to know more about the motivations of a man willing to go so far to change his fate.