The history of an extended family whose relationships and destinies are shaped by fallout from Sri Lanka’s ongoing civil war is sorrowfully traced in Ganeshananthan’s affecting first novel.
The narrator, Yalini, is an American-born young woman whose personal freedom is indebted to the courage of her parents, Murali and Vani, both of whom had escaped marriages to others “Arranged” for them (as decreed by long-standing custom) and emigrated to the West. As Yalini is impelled to focus her attention on the world of her fathers and mothers (in the wake, so to speak, of the catastrophic 2004 tsunami), she begins to question not only her Hindu culture’s ceremonial imperatives, but the rights and wrongs of the war that began in earnest in the year of her birth (1983), and the divisive allegiances that drew her fiery uncle Kumaran into the orbit of the feared “Tamil Tigers,” revolutionary opponents of Sri Lanka’s oppressive Sinhalese majority. As Kumaran lies dying of cancer, and his daughter Jenani plans marriage to a highly placed Tamil operative, Yalini uncovers the histories of her predecessors and contemporaries, in Asia and North America. Summary suggests a crowded narrative, but in fact it’s a glancing, episodic one, framed in rapid, brief vignettes, only some of which strike with much force. The stories of the doomed Kumaran, unable to resist the righteous momentum of terrorism; Murali’s frail sister Uma, who “was just Too Special to Get Married”; and of a wedding “disrupted” by terrorist vengeance, are notably vivid and memorable. Ganeshananthan’s portrayal of Yalini as her embattled family’s reluctant historian is complex and interesting, as is Yalini’s recognition of her “outsider” status (“When I got to the U.K. I had a shock...I realized that I had become a colored person.”).
The hit-and-run structure has the unfortunate, and surely unintended, effect of fragmenting the overall emotional impact. Still, the individual characters’ stories ring true and should move readers to make this novel a book-club favorite.