The Sri Lankan civil war’s traumatic effect on the island nation's people—and one family in particular—is the subject of this verdantly atmospheric first novel.
After a graphic post-coital prologue, Sri Lanka born California resident Munaweera begins her family saga in 1948, when the British leave their former colony Ceylon, where the Tamil majority is looked down on by the lighter-skinned Sinhala ruling class. Nishan and his twin sister, Mala—children of an ambitious Sinhala teacher and a laid-back doctor of uncertain bloodlines—leave their coastal village to attend university in Colombo. Free spirit Mala falls in love with another student and marries without traditional arranged nuptials. Nishan, an engineer, is deemed acceptable to marry aristocratic Visaka, the daughter of an Oxford-educated Sinhala judge, only because the judge’s expenditures while renovating his home shortly before his death have left his family financially strapped. Visaka’s mother has recently had to rent out the upstairs of her house, and Nishan does not know that Visaka marries him while pining for Ravan, one of her mother’s Tamil tenants. Ravan and his new wife live upstairs while Nishan and Visaka move in downstairs, where they raise daughters Yasodhara and Luxshmi. Yasodhara’s closest playmate and soul mate is Ravan’s son Shiva. The children live there in innocent bliss until 1983, when Mala’s husband is brutally murdered by an angry mob during increasing Tamil-Sinhala unrest. Nishan and Visaka react by moving to America, where their daughters soon assimilate. But after a college relationship ends badly, Yasodhara allows her parents to pick a husband for her. As Yasodhara’s marriage falls apart, successful artist Luxshmi returns to Sri Lanka to teach children wounded in the war. Meanwhile, in northern Sri Lanka, a young Timor girl is drawn into the intensifying civil war until her life’s destiny crosses those of Luxshmi and Yasodhara.
Compared to the expressive, deeply felt chapters about Yasodhara’s family, Munaweera’s depiction of war-torn Sri Lanka, though harrowing, seems rushed and journalistic, more reported than experienced.