An episodic novel—or a set of loosely connected stories—set in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 26-year civil war between the insurgent Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army.
The narrator is a van driver, Vasantha, a conceit that cleverly allows the reader to accompany him on his travels through the country, so the structure of the novel becomes an odyssey of sorts. Early on Vasantha comments: “You don’t have to feel trapped. If you are on the move, there is always hope,” and he does in fact retain his humanity and optimism despite the postwar devastation he chronicles. We get to know him through his thoughts and his conversations in the van and at meals, frequently with foreigners visiting the country as it tries to regain a foothold on tourism. One encounter that leads to a rather testy confrontation occurs among Father Perera, his friend Mr. Patrick (an Englishman who’s studying for the priesthood) and a major from the Sri Lankan army who recounts a harrowing episode from the war, one that could be construed as a war crime but which the major simply dismisses as a necessary action. The brutality of the anecdote plays out as they’re all eating a meal that includes the most delicious mangoes in the country. In “Shoot,” Sanji, a photographer who’s been an expat in Italy for many years, returns for a photo shoot at a cricket stadium that had been destroyed by a tsunami in 2004. Other signs of hope abound as, toward the end of his travels, Vasantha recounts streets swept clean of war debris, burned-out buses that have been hauled away and oil barrels removed from army checkpoints, yet many of the scars remain because they’ve been internalized by those traumatized by a generation of war.
A moving chronicle of hope triumphing over despair from the author of The Match (2008, etc.).