Hower’s sixth (Shadows and Elephants, 2001, etc.) continues his exploration of Asia, this time in the story of a Sri Lankan girl’s complicated coming of age.
Destined to become a talented painter, young Lila is growing up in a jungle nature preserve managed by her parents. She hopes to be shepherded to adulthood by mysterious Uncle Richard, who arrives in the small town of Kudawa at a time of violence and upheaval. It’s the Buddhists against the Hindus, with Christians like Lila and her family among the innocent bystanders to the whole mess. Cultural conflict creates some of the tension: Sri Lanka is haunted by devas, “little goddesses that protect trees and rivers,” but Richard tells tales of Sprite, which in the US is both a sweet drink and another name for devas. Lila herself might be a preta, a soul caught in Sri Lankan limbo, “stuck between incarnations. She was aching for her old familiar life . . . but at the same time longing for everything to change.” Lila and Richard have an uncommon bond; from her sketches, she knows what he means when he says that he sometimes doesn’t know his thoughts until he writes them down. Apart from their talks together, most of the story centers on Lila’s cat Zalie, who is first imprisoned for doing something wrong, then possessed, then sacrificed to either set it free or send a message. The cat serves as a metaphorical echo of the Tamil Tiger terrorists, who may be using the nature preserve to hide from enemies. To what extent Lila’s father is mixed up in the hostilities carries the plot from there. We’re stuck in Lila’s point of view, so most of the intrigue remains at a distance, and this remains a standard Bildungsroman, flavored with some foreign mysticism and a dash or two of demons.
Lively but familiar, despite the lunge for the exotic.