Longlisted for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, The Swimmer is Roma Tearne’s fourth novel and once again revisits the turmoil and tragedy of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. I loved Tearne’s debut, Mosquito, which I read a couple of years ago and have been steadily collecting her subsequent novels to read. Her style of writing is assured, measured and beautiful and her themes often deal with a dark and violent past set against a contrast of a deceptively calm and peaceful present.

In The Swimmer, we meet Ria, a poet living alone in Eel House, a childhood retreat in East Anglia which once belonged to her uncle. When her brother Jack with his fascist politics and his put-upon wife and kids visits one Summer, she notices that someone has been swimming in the stream at the bottom of her garden at night. Curious, and also a little frightened, she catches sight of a young man who leaves wet footprints in her kitchen and smuggles away food. She soon gets to know Ben, a doctor and Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, who is working illegally in a nearby farm while waiting for his documents to be processed at the Home Office. A tentative friendship quickly blossoms into something more until events happen that will change their lives forever.

Initially I struggled with the first half of the book which was slow and rather indulgent. There is no question that Tearne can write beautifully, yet the pace crept too slowly as though she had to document every tiny detail. In some ways, Tearne’s training as a painter shows through and I think it is wonderful if it was slightly more contained. Part of the reason was that I couldn’t sympathise with the Ria’s character and I didn’t get much of a sense of Ben either. However, the second part of the book narrated by Anula, Ben’s mother, is incredibly vivid and makes you want to know more. Although I found Anula’s character to be harsh (and why should she be nice and soft after experiencing so much tragedy in her life?), I found I was losing myself in her story. The third chapter, narrated by Lydia, Ria’s daughter, was just annoying. In some ways I could see what Tearne was trying to do, and I think it does work, but the only character I really liked was Eric, the eel farmer who was Ria’s father’s friend and to whom all three women turn to in their time of need. As much as it is about Sri Lanka, it is also a portrait of modern Britain, from it’s faceless, impersonal cities to suspicious villages, battling with immigration and uncertainty.

I wasn’t sure whether I would like this novel, and I’m still not sure whether it actually works, but there is a raw power to it, especially Anula’s story, which struck me hard. I felt shock, heartbreak and anger when I read about the fates of the loved ones Ben had left behind. I know there’s been some mixed reactions, but I do feel that the second part of the book makes it all worthwhile and I urge you not to give up if you do decide to read this book. Although there are bits I found exasperating, especially the unsympathetic portrayal of most of the main characters, there is something about The Swimmer that has burrowed into my brain. Maybe it’s the resonance of what has happened in Sri Lanka, which Tearne is trying to work through in her novels and which every Sri Lankan is questioning, that affects me, but there is a harshness and a sadness which lingers. And maybe that’s the effect Tearne is after.

I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge.

I would like to thank the lovely people at Harper Collins for kindly sending me a copy of The Swimmer to review.

Mosquito by Roma Tearne

28 January, 2010

This is my first offering for the TBR 2010 Challenge and the South Asian Author Challenge and I’m happy I read it because 1) it was an extremely well written and evocative book and 2) it’s been on my TBR pile for about 3 years. Every time I go back to Sri Lanka I return with a pile of books by Sri Lankan authors and every good intention to read them as soon as I can, but I am so easily distracted…

Mosquito by Roma Tearne does not read like a first novel. Tearne’s prose is clear and simple and she has written a tragic but beautiful tale about returning to your roots and finding a paradise turned into hell. Tearne herself is Sri Lankan of mixed Tamil/Sinhalese parentage and left Sri Lanka at the age of 10 with her family. All the Sri Lankan authors I have attempted to read who write about Sri Lanka touch upon the internal conflict which afflicted the land for over 30 years, and it’s heartbreaking and sometimes difficult to read. But if you want to learn something about the country, you have to know about it’s history which permeates everything and everyone, whether they are in Sri Lanka or abroad.

In Mosquito, we meet Theo Samarajeeva, an acclaimed international writer whose book is being made into a major film who returns to Sri Lanka after 30 years. He comes back nursing a broken heart after the death of his Italian wife Anna to find his country unrecognisable. He rents a beach house and is looked after by his manservant Sugi who becomes a trusted friend and settles down to write, but finds that his attention is caught by his neighbour’s daughter Nulani Mendis, a young girl scarred by the violent death of her father who has stopped speaking and only draws. A friendship blossoms between the two, slowly chipping away at their sadness and loneliness and Theo slowly returns to writing as Nulani discovers her talent as a painter. Their brief friendship is torn apart when the island’s violence closes in on them and their lives as well as those of their friends are splintered in the chaos of war.

This was a sad book, but to me it was a story of love more than a story of war. The alienationation Theo feels on his return after such a long absence, the disjunction between life in Europe compared with Sri Lanka, the bittersweet blanket of time which soothes away sorrow but still allows for the heart to burn with love for someone lost to them. Tearne’s fiction is vivid, and although I shed a few tears at the end, there was some sort of redemption for the characters in her tale. She doesn’t judge the people or their actions but drops you into a world where the majority of people are struggling to understand the breakdown of their society. It also brought home to me that there are always two sides to a war and both are capable of startling acts of kindness as well as terrible atrocities.

I’m looking forward to reading her next book Bone China.

Interviews with Tearne can be found here and here.

There’s only two and a half months left before I fly off to sunny climes and needless to say I CANNOT wait. London has become extremely chilly all of a sudden and I’m missing my sunshine. My fingers feel frostbitten without gloves and my head is missing my hat. OK, so I’m a hypochondriac and it’s not really that bad, but seriously, I feel I’ve forgotten what Winter is like. Everything seems new and fresh this year. The cold, the sudden darkness, this feeling of mono no aware. I kind of like it. Makes me feel all tingly and alive.

So, I’ve just realised that two and a half months isn’t really that long for the list of books I’m planning to read in preparation for the Galle Literary Festival 2010 at the end of January. I still have my stash of Sri Lankan/diasporic literature safely tucked away on my TBR shelf and I think I really ought to clear some of it before I go. I have the following titles and if I’m organised, maybe I’ll get through half of them:

On Sri Lanka
All is Burning by Jean Arasanayagam
When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan (an interesting essay here)
The Banana Tree Crisis by Isankya Kodithuwakku
Mosquito by Roma Tearne
Bone China by Roma Tearne
The Far Field by Edie Meidav

And also:

On Asia/India
East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Maharanis by Lucy Moore
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt

If I can read about half the books on this list by the time I’m on that plane, then I’ll be happy. I’ve had most of these books for a year and feel slightly ashamed that I actually bought some of them the last time I was in Sri Lanka a year ago….what can I say? I’m easily distracted.

But I did finish two collections of short stories The Good Little Ceylonese Girl and Colpetty People by Ashok Ferrey which were delightful. And if I have time, I might reread Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens as he will be one of the participants at the upcoming GLF. And can I also mention my favourites Romesh Gunasekara, Michelle de Kretser and Michael Ondaatje? I might try and dig out Michelle de Kretser’s first novel The Rose Grower to read if I can find it as it’s somewhere in storage at my sis’.

No doubt I will be buying a lot more books in Sri Lanka. The Perera Hussein Publishing House always brings out a nice selection of fiction into the world, and I love going to the bookshop at the Barefoot Gallery to browse their incredible array of books on Sri Lanka. And my father has promised that he will take me to a street of secondhand booksellers near the Fort, an area of Colombo that we had been increasingly avoiding due to the occasional bombs during the conflict but which we used to frequent when I was a child. This year I’m taking my Sony e-reader and one big fantasy book (it’s Steven Erikson vs. George R.R. Martin at the moment) so I’ll have loads of space in my suitcase to bring back any interesting finds!