Sri Lanka erupted into violence in the 1980s, with people identifying themselves as Tamil or Sinhalese, Hindu or Buddhist, Burgher or Muslim—the conflicts brewed over language policies, territories and curfews.
Against this backdrop of sociopolitical unrest, Freeman (A Disobedient Girl, 2009) sets her second novel. The inhabitants of Sal Mal Lane, like a constellation of stars, orbit around the Herath family, whose house is in the middle of the street and whose matriarch embraces the songs and customs of many religions. A devout Buddhist, she nonetheless teaches her children to sing Christian hymns in four-part harmony. Gravity draws first the attention of Mr. Niles, who discerns a troubled soul through Nihil’s uncertain voice; then Sonna Bolling, a bully and political thug-in-waiting; then the Silvas, whose own matriarch embraces every bias and prejudice; and later Raju, whose ugly face belies his lovely heart. Utterly devoted to his younger sister, Devi, Nihil negotiates the world of Sal Mal Lane and beyond, learning about Mr. Niles’ previous war experience, which has left him chastened, aware that racial distinctions blur, and frightened to witness the rising turmoil. Slowly, the tensions ratchet up. Sonna joins an anti-Tamil gang, and violence intrudes into everyone’s lives. Yet, the event that brings everyone to their knees has nothing to do with Tamil-Sinhalese tensions and everything to do with the pointless loss of innocent life. Freeman establishes her narrator in the prologue as the air, the road, the dreams that bind her characters together. The technique may weave the characters more closely, but it also distances the narrator and the reader from woes that befall Nihil, Devi, Sonna, Raju and their families.
Lovingly written, historically rich and compassionate to all sides of the turmoil, this tale is also frustratingly distant, leaving the reader sympathetic but not fully engaged.