Vicky Had One Eye Open by Darryl Samaraweera
12 January, 2011
You know me and Sri Lankan lit, I like to get my mitts on everything that’s around. I came across Vicky Had One Eye Open by Darryl Samaraweera by chance in my local library because the surname just screamed Sri Lankan. I had never heard of the author or this book so I was intrigued.
I imagined it to be similar in vein to most other diasporic literature. However, it surprised me. The first few chapters left me feeling slightly bored. It was slow, there was no dialogue, it was all tell and no show. But the writing was good. You could see it was polished and very clever. Maybe a little too clever. But sometimes that just isn’t enough. I was half in mind to put the book down unfinished because although it seemed as though we were going to find out about Vicky’s past, Samaraweera surprised me and didn’t do the expected. I persisted because I was feeling guilty about returning it unfinished to the library and I’m glad I did. Because although nothing much happened, there was something about Samaraweera’s style that went against the grain of most diasporic literature and I rather liked him for it.
Vicky’s life is ebbing away. As she is taken to the hospital, her family and friends gather around her hospital bed, fussing, worrying and trying to do the right thing. We meet her husband, three children, two sisters and their families. We never find out their names. Samaraweera just calls them Vicky’s husband, Vicky’s eldest, Vicky’s sister, etc. In some ways that prevents you from connecting with the characters which I thought was a shame as it stopped me caring about them. He does give names to all the other people in her life: her friends, colleagues, her sons’ girlfriends. As she slips into a coma, we find out about her past, her life in Sri Lanka as a privileged child, her move to the UK where she meets her husband, their shared life in London. There is only one chapter towards the end where the family returns to Colombo for a holiday in 1983 which brought a little tropical colour to the tale. But hardly anything about the internal conflict that blighted Sri Lanka for 26 years.
Samaraweera’s book is a book about London, not Sri Lanka. Vicky’s children have no connections with her home country. They’re British through and through and they aren’t interested in their roots. They go to the pub, have relationships with non-Sri Lankans and struggle with their identities as Londoners. There’s no external suffering in this tale, only internal. It’s a snapshot of the modern displaced family who have successfully set roots in another country. Whether they are happy is besides the point. They all suffer from the malaise that permeates any city life, especially a city as big as London.
I finished the book not caring so much about Vicky or her family. But I did feel that Samaraweera has written a book that may change the course of diasporic writing where you can finally move away from writing the nostalgic novel of a home country that one yearns to return to but finds there is no longer a place for you. But a little dialogue and pacing would have lifted this novel and injected some life into it. Compared to Nikesh Shukla’s Coconut Unlimited which I finished the day before, it had a more dream-like, contemplative quality.
Maybe I’m being a little harsh here but I wished Samaraweera had let loose a little more. It felt as though he was on the brink of telling the tale but holding back. There was also too much referencing of cultural fads so popular in creative writing workshops which didn’t add much to the story (but not as much as Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado which I’m currently reading!)
BUT Vicky Had One Eye Open is beautifully written and lingers in the mind long after you’ve put it down. And I would really like to see where Samaraweera goes next in his literary career.
I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge 2011.