“We are not normal. We can not speak in normal voices ever again. Even if the peace comes.”
Theo Saramajeeva, a successful writer and film-maker in London, has returned to his native country, Sri Lanka, seeking solace in his spiritual “home” following the traumatic death of his Italian wife. The civil war is on, and Sinhalese government soldiers patrol the roads and beaches. Though Theo, a Sinhalese, sees much evil in his own people and much good in the enemy Tamils, he does not fear violence to himself–he believes that reason can triumph, given a chance. In a separate plot line, Vikram, a Tamil boy soldier-killer, is adopted by a Sinhalese at age twelve and provided with schooling and a better life, but his guardian is gone for years at a time, leaving Vikram virtually on his own. Remembering the terrible deaths of his family, he soon finds his own spiritual “home,” once again, among the Tamils–both the separatists and those who want more than a separate state–Tamil domination of the entire country.
Nulani Mendis, a seventeen-year-old Sinhalese with a brutally violent uncle, a high-ranking government soldier, has been mute after watching her father burned to death. She has a fine talent as an artist, however, and when she meets Theo, who is twenty-eight years older than she, she begins to reenter the world again as she sets out to paint his portrait. Gradually, and carefully, they fall in love. Vikram, the prowling Tamil spy, now sixteen, is also in love with her.
When the war explodes in the countryside where these characters live, the Sinhalese, their associates, and friends find that they can no longer recognize the world as human. Though they know that “Living has always been a desperate business,” many have found “art as our highest form of hope,” but now relocation, imprisonment, torture, murder, and slow death become the norm, and there is no hope, other than escape, physical or emotional. Unconscionable violence alternates with scenes of exquisite love and the serenity of nature, leading to a fast-paced, suspenseful novel in which hope can never be completely extinguished.
Roma Tearne, who grew up in Sri Lanka, crafts a powerful novel, combining the horrifying violence and brutality of brainwashed boy soldiers and opportunistic power seekers with the sometimes lyrical portrayal of nature and the enduring power of love. Now a painter and film-maker in London, as well as a gifted writer, Tearne makes the fraught atmosphere come alive through almost tactile sense impressions, adding depth to this portrait of Sri Lanka, even as she uses the mosquito symbol to show that beauty, when it can be found, always comes with a price.
Notes: Also reviewed here: Tearne’s BONE CHINA
The author’s photo appears on http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk
The photo of a tank firing in Sri Lanka accompanies a story about the civil war there: http://www.boston.com
Children recruited to be soldiers by Tamil rebels: http://kidskillingkids.blogspot.com