Really more like 3.75 stars.
This is a short but very vivid tale of life and civil war in Sri Lanka. It manages to be historical fiction, family saga and contemporary immigration story all in one: not bad for 240 pages. But the island of Sri Lanka itself is the real protagonist here, more so than any individual character.
So the book begins with the island, and follows the primary narrator’s family for 60 pages before she’s even born, but it pulled me in with strong writing and fantastic imagery. Most of the rest of the novel follows the primary narrator, Yasodhara, as she grows up on the island, then moves to the U.S. as a teenager with her parents and sister to escape the burgeoning civil war. She grows up, assimilates, and marries, but her life and her sister’s are still inextricably tied to their homeland. Meanwhile, the book spends about 50 pages with the secondary narrator, Saraswathi, a young woman who isn’t lucky enough to escape and who is forced to join the Tamil Tigers.
For such a brief story, this is very well-told: the author uses just the right words, and no more of them than necessary. The writing style is assured and although this is a first novel, the lyricism works without seeming forced. The sensory detail is beautiful and striking throughout. As for the characters, Munaweera does a great job of describing their lives, but their personalities remain a little too nebulous for me to invest much emotion in them, and I found myself most interested in secondary characters like Yasodhara’s aunt Mala and grandmother Sylvia. The author seems more comfortable with Yasodhara’s story of immigration (which resembles her own) than Saraswathi’s story of terrorism; the latter feels underdeveloped and I was never quite convinced by her transition from intelligent teenage girl to killer. Yasodhara’s story, meanwhile, is keenly observed, and feels fresh even though the topic is a common one.
In the end, I would recommend this novel for its vibrancy and its humanity; while to me, at times, it seemed too short, more sensitive readers and those who have read fewer stories of life during wartime will appreciate the reprieve. You won’t come away from this book with a lot of factual information about the war in Sri Lanka, but you will come away with a sense of the humanity and the tragedy on both sides.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.