This family tragedy begins in a prison cell, where the unnamed narrator wants to explain her (also unnamed) crime by telling her life story, from birth and childhood in Sri Lanka to adolescence and young adulthood in California.
The narrator’s father, a professor from an upper-class family, married her beautiful but poor mother in the early 1970s, when he was 29 and she only 17. The narrator, born a year later after a difficult delivery that left her mother unable to bear more children, feels the pressure of being the center of her parents’ lives. In glorious detail she describes the lush beauty of her childhood home, the flavors of the food, the love she feels from cousins and schoolmates. But her nostalgic memories also contain fear, dread, and confusion. Her mother veers from doting to withdrawn to hostile. Her father mopes and drinks. And then there's Samson the gardener: is he a source of protection or threat? She's not completely sure, but she has dreams of dangerous sexuality. After an altercation shortly before the narrator’s 14th birthday, her father drowns and Samson goes missing. The narrator and her mother leave Sri Lanka for California, where the immigrant teenager struggles to fit in but also shares moments of genuine joy and intimacy with her Americanized cousin Dharshi. Then there's the glorious spiraling love the narrator shares with Daniel, a white artist from West Virginia. The exuberance of the narrator’s memories are undercut by repeated warnings that the ending will be unhappy and by overwrought teasers concerning the murkily described evils that have supposedly caused the narrator’s own unspoken, unspeakable behavior.
The melodramatic framing device only distracts from the crystalline precision with which Munaweera (Island of a Thousand Mirrors, 2014) renders the richness of the immigrant experience as well as her character’s singular longings, fears, joys, and demons.