The Moon in the Water by Ameena Hussein is another book I read during my holiday in Sri Lanka. I’ve been waiting to read her book since I first saw her at the Galle Literary Festival 2009 a year ago. What interested me about Hussein’s work is that she brings her ethnicity and religion into a literary tradition (by which I mean Sri Lankan literature in English) that is overwhelmingly Sinhala/Tamil/Burgher and Buddhist/Hindu/Christian, and I, like so many others, was ready to start reading about the experiences of a Muslim Sri Lankan.

In The Moon in the Water we meet Khadeeja who finds herself on a precipice, looking back at a past that has suddenly shifted and towards a future that no longer seems simple and certain. The eldest child in a wealthy Muslim family in Colombo, she has returned home to mourn and attend her father’s funeral, leaving behind her boyfriend in Europe where she has been working for many years. As her family deals with the aftermath of her father’s violent death, a secret is unveiled which causes Khadeeja to break down and leave home. She goes to stay in a remote part of Sri Lanka and meets Arjuna, a young Sinhalese man married to an European lady, whose impact on her life will change its course forever.

Hussein writes beautifully; her style measured and polished. This is an unconventional story, part bildungsroman and part love story, and I loved the way that she slowly unveils Khadeeja’s past together with her growing vulnerability and shaken belief. Khadeeja, who was so sure of herself and her place in society, slowly fragments and transforms into another being as she goes on her journey to find out what she and her family really mean to one another. The book’s unexpected ending left me heart-broken, but Hussein tackles the difficult issues of ethnicity, family, love and loss in a sympathetic and thoughtful way without becoming kitsch.

I now can’t wait to read her two earlier collections of short stories Fifteen and Zillij; something to look forward to when I next go to Sri Lanka. The Moon in the Water was longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize.

An interview with Ameena Hussein can be found here and an article here.

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

As soon as I landed in Colombo, my father spoke excitedly about a book he had read recently, a book which one of my good Sri Lankan friends had said I must read. My father, who likes to read his books slowly said he finished it in two days. And being jet-lagged and unacclimatised to the the tropical heat, I began to read it that night and finished it in 4 hours. The book, winner of the Gratiaen Prize in 2003, was The Road form Elephant Pass by Nihal de Silva. I had seen it last year in the bookshops in Colombo and didn’t feel an urge to read it as it was about a Sri Lankan army officer and a Tamil Tiger fighter (and I’m not such a fan of military stories). But that was precisely what made the book such a thrilling, yet profound read. It was the first book I read that tackled the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka and discussed deep rooted prejudices and questions which we have all asked yet were too afraid to voice in public.

The novel begins at Elephant Pass, a strategic base in the north of Sri Lanka where the Sri Lankan army is engaged in a stand-off against the LTTE or Tamil Tigers. Captain Wasantha, a Sinhalese soldier, is given the task of bringing in an LTTE informant who has turned against the Tigers and has agreed to hand over vital information in exchange for a deal. Things go wrong from the start and Wasantha and Kamala, the young female Tamil Tiger activist, have no choice but to go on the run together and try to make it through the Wanni, the heart of Tiger territory, Wilpattu National Park and down to Colombo where Kamala insists on handing over the information directly to the head of the Sri Lankan army. The two, fierce enemies at the start, must work together in order to stay alive and ward off unwanted attention from both sides of the conflict. In addition, there is the constant danger from feral army deserters who have nothing to lose. As Wasantha and Kamala work together and have no choice but to help one another, their hostility towards each other slowly erodes as they learn about their past, losses and beliefs which have led them to where they are in their lives today. Would they make it in one piece to Colombo? And when they do, will Kamala be safe? Can their fragile trust in each other survive the war?

Nihal de Silva has produced a finely written, taut, thriller dealing with difficult and complex issues in an unbiased, unsentimental, yet intelligent manner. I was severely impressed with the way he discussed the Sinhala-Tamil conflict which is so emotive and which has destroyed so many lives in Sri Lanka and the diaspora. And in Wasantha and Kamala, de Silva has shown the strength of both peoples, the horror and sadness each has had to face and the way humans are the same wherever they come from and in which ethnicity they are born.

I can’t recommend The Road from Elephant Pass highly enough. It made me think deeply about the mechanism of war and the destructive nature of hatred. As much as it is about war and has an incredibly fast-paced plot, it is also a love story between two people whose beliefs and paths in life are polar opposites, yet who are given the chance to discover each other and find a fleeting happiness amongst all the chaos and destruction around them.

Sadly, in 2006 Nihal de Silva was killed in a landmine explosion in his beloved Wilpattu National Park in northwestern Sri Lanka which features so much in his book. The Road from Elephant Pass was made into a film titled Alimankada recently in Sri Lanka which I have yet to see, but I have heard that the ending has been altered. If I were you, I’d make sure I read the book first.

I’m submitting this book for both the South Asian Authors Challenge hosted by S. Krishna’s Books and the Thriller and Suspense Reading Challenge 2010 by Book Chick City.

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!

Favourite Writers: Fiction

15 August, 2009

Everytime I am confronted with articles or questionnaires about favourite books and writers, I decide to make my own list and give up after a few minutes. It’s not that I don’t have enough to fill a list, I have too many favourites and I fear that I have forgotten some of the ones I particularly loved. I want to do justice to that list. In author interviews, this is one of the most frequently asked questions and I can almost visualise their quavering when they have to announce to the world their favourite books and authors. They always start or end by saying that this is by no means absolute and it could change tomorrow. That is how I feel too. But there are a number of titles I will always love because of their impact on my thinking at a particular point in my life, and I thought it would be a good exercise to give it a try. Put it down on paper, so to speak.

I generally read a lot of mysteries, historical mysteries, science fiction and fantasy and general/literary fiction and of course, some classics, once in a while. When I was a student I went through a French phase where everything had to originate from the Latin Quarter: Sartre, Beauvouir and Camus. I grew up with the refrain ‘maman est morte’ as Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider in English) is my father’s all time favourite book, a remnant of his student days at the Sorbonne in the late ’60s.

letranger theoutsider

I will be putting up lists divided by genre in the coming weeks but will start with the most general. It’s not a reflection of which is the most important genre for me. I’m open to and have favourites in all. I tend to mix my reading and have several books on the go, but sometimes I find that I need to concentrate on one book just to see it through and do it some justice.

So, let’s start with the following:

General/literary fiction

Donna Tartt (A Secret History)
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)
Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age)
Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Patron Saint of Liars)
Michelle de Kretser (The Hamilton Case)
Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger)
Romesh Gunasekara (The Match)
Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens)
Douglas Coupland (Generation X)
Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Kaori Ekuni (Twinkle Twinkle, Calmi Cuori Appassionata – Red (in Japanese only))
Agota Kristof (The Notebook; The Proof; The Third Lie – Three Novels)
Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family, The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost)

You will notice that I have quite a few Sri Lankan writers in the mix: Michelle de Kretser, Romesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. Everytime I go back to Sri Lanka, I always feel a need to read about the country, to immerse myself in the culture and history of the place. And I also stock up on a lot of books there that aren’t available abroad. Perera Hussein Publishing House publishes Sri Lankan authors writing in English and their blog can be found here.

My favourite book of all time is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I first read it as I was revising for my first year undergrad exams. Even though my mind was busy trying to grasp the intricacies of maths and physics, Tartt’s novel gripped me from the start and I spent every moment I could away from my studies burrowed in her book. I haven’t read it in a while so I might give it a go when the mood takes me. Her second book The Little Friend was much anticipated but didn’t have as big an impact and took me a while to get into. There is something about her writing that invokes a feeling within me that I cannot find anywhere else. I finished it still believing she is a great writer even though I didn’t love it as much as The Secret History, and I can’t wait for her next book.