I don’t think I’ve read much erotica, apart from bodice rippers such a few Mills & Boon, Sidney Sheldon, Lace and Jilly Cooper’s infamous Riders at school (well, I did go to a girls’ boarding school). Probably the only other book of erotic stories I’ve read is Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, Story of the Eye by Georges Battaille and some Marquis de Sade, just because of their notoriety. I don’t think I found them all that titillating, maybe due to the absence of romance. The other thing that always bugs me is whether you are prying into the subconscious desires of the author, whether that’s how they do it, and it embarrasses me a little. I’m probably totally wrong here but I’m not entirely sure.

Blue edited by Ameena Hussein is probably the first collection of erotica published in Sri Lanka so naturally I was a little curious as to what kind of stories it might contain. It came tied up in string which I thought was a clever marketing trick. Like with many short story collections, it’s a mixed bag, more so because in the case of Blue there was a mixture of prose and poetry from professional and amateur writers. But it’s experimental and experiment is good for erotica, no?

Of the sixteen tales here, the two strongest were by Ameena Hussein and Shehan Karunatilaka. They were a little more polished compared to the others but that’s probably because they are both published authors, Hussein has several short story collections and a novel, The Moon in the Water and Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman has been chosen as one of Waterstone’s 11 best first novels of 2011.

Undercover, Hussein’s tale of a housewife who finds her thrills in a dark and half-empty cinema in downtown Colombo is a mixture of adolescent excitement and old man smuttiness. Yet it strangely touched upon emotions, love, loneliness and lust and didn’t leave you feeling all that dirty. In fact it was a tale of awakening of sorts and I liked it.

Veysee, Karunatilaka’s story is driven more from a male perspective with a sting at the end. Although I’m sure it happens everywhere, I still get a shock when I read about sex-obsessed teenagers and adulterous smug-marrieds especially in Sri Lanka. I seem to have a rose-tinted view of the country entrenched in village life which no matter how many stories I hear or witness can never successfully erase. The protagonist jokes around with his colleagues at a bar, sex-texts some teen who is more experienced that him and proceeds to dump him, and after several drinks stumbles into a prostitute on the way home when he normally avoids such sordid encounters. You see him slowly unravel as all his swagger diminishes and finally we see him for what he is. Very cleverly done. And funny.

The other tales were hit and miss, some bittersweet, some kinky, all teething. But it’s nice to see a cross-section of talent and tales.

You can read an article about books and bookshelves by Ameena Hussein here.

I read this as part of the South Asian Challenge 2011.

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.

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.

There’s been a lot of buzz about this book in the UK, especially since it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. Sadly it just missed the award, but I thought it was a great little book and very, very orange!

What first drew my interest was that Coconut Unlimited was set in Harrow and the main character Amit and his two friends Nishant and Anand are the only three Asians in a public boys’ school. [N.B. In the UK, Asian denotes someone of South Asian origin and is considered politically correct to use. And a public school is a posh private school. Yup, confusing.] I went to a girls’ boarding school near Harrow so felt rather nostalgic reading about it.

Amit, Nishant and Anand are into their hip-hop and busy assuming the cultural identity of Black American hip-hop community to distinguish themselves from their white classmates and their brown family friends. They are set apart because they go to a public school and not the local comprehensive where most of their Gujarati peers are studying. Their parents work hard to afford the fees and have high expectations that they will one day become a member of the three main occupations which all South Asian parents dream of: doctor, lawyer or engineer. However all the boys want to do is sing in their band, Coconut Unlimited, and follow the hip-hop way. As if that isn’t hard enough, they must wrangle their way through hormones, racism, the local drug dealer who is a family friend and neighbour and fragile friendships.

Nikesh Shukla has written a darkly comic tale of identity, following your dreams and dealing with racism in a primarily sheltered part of modern Britain. It’s not exactly inner city London. Yet it’s not exactly paradise either.

There were bits that made me laugh out loud and bits that made me uncomfortable. Shukla deftly captures the early warm friendships that will forever remain a part of you. Yet there was something about Amit that left me feeling slightly perplexed. Even though it is his story, I didn’t quite ‘get’ him. But then, I guess at fifteen, none of us knows what we are doing, right? The only other quibble is the amount of lyrics that were in the text which I thought could have been edited a little more. The best bits were the family scenes with Amit’s mum which were hysterical. It reminded me so much of all the tales I’d heard from my school friends who grew up in Harrow. And the rudeboy dialect’s just crackin’.

Coconut Unlimited is a funny and bittersweet debut. Shukla knows his people and he knows how to present them to a generation of Asians who are caught between the land they grow up in and the land their parents dream of.

I would like to thank Quartet Books for kindly sending me this book to review.

This is my first offering for the South Asian Challenge 2011.