This magical-realist novel features Faustian pacts and forbidden love in its depiction of the circumstances feeding into the Sri Lankan civil war.
Thurai’s debut teems with characters navigating the social, political and spiritual realities of 1950s Ceylon, in what is now Sri Lanka. Arjun Kumaran, an assistant to a local government agent, arrives at his new home with the Chelvam family. Despite her marriage to Raj, it’s not long before Neleni Chelvam falls head over heels for Arjun. But otherworldly circumstances intensify alongside their romance: Followers of the demon Hooniyam aim to conspire against the power of local Tamils. While Arjun is out investigating the weak progress of a government road project, the conspirators target him and others because of their Tamil background. Asoka, the penitent second protagonist, flees the violence that Hooniyam and his minions perpetrate. From here, a wealth of stories emerge: Arjun’s brief affair with Leela, the foreman’s wife; Asoka’s secret relationship with Sriya, which causes her betrothed, Tissa, to vengefully join Hooniyam’s forces; the election of Bandaranaike, with his strong religious ties; and the slow-burning desire that fires up between Arjun and Neleni, which raises tension in the Chelvam household. Thurai’s lengthy novel is more realistic than magical, as she evokes mythos without letting magic overwhelm the humanity of the narrative. Hooniyam, the horrific demon, is one of only a few nonhumans that pop up, and the bulk of the intersecting stories develop out of human emotion and real cultural rifts in historical Ceylon. Thurai’s work may divide readers with deep connections to Sri Lankan politics, but her empathy helps bridge the fissure between the Sinhalese and Tamil people. Amid powerful insight into post-colonial politics and the beginnings of Sri Lanka’s violent war, the author only condemns the violence that erupts out of the cultural and political conflict, not the nonpartisan life decisions the citizens on either side of the conflict must make.
Sultry romance, tense politicking and colorful mythmaking combine for a broad, engaging novel.