‘Island of a Thousand Mirrors’

Island of a Thousand MirrorsReview by Nadifa Mohamed, ‘The New York Times,’ September 26, 2014

In one of the many startling scenes in “Island of a Thousand Mirrors,” Nayomi Munaweera’s first novel, a Sri Lankan girl riding the train to school is suddenly surrounded by a machete-wielding mob, who demand proof she isn’t Tamil. In her panic, she recites the Buddhist sutras “preaching unattachment, impermanence, the inevitability of death,” an unholy trinity that could apply to all civil wars. This chilling exchange reminded me of a conversation I once had on a London bus with a Somali refugee, who swerved from banal chitchat into dark reminiscence. He recalled a moment in Mogadishu when he was forced to recite his genealogy, the string of grandfathers’ names that place all Somalis within their clans, and he borrowed a school friend’s lineage, as his own would have marked him for death.

The weight of these humiliations, momentary yet everlasting, is the ballast of a narrative that ebbs and flows in time and space. From the maternal expanse of the Indian Ocean to the sterile swimming pools of Los Angeles, the lives of Munaweera’s characters are defined by bodies of water that reflect the state of their souls, including the corpse-clogged wells and lagoons of the Tamil north and the playful shores of the Sinhala south, alive with flying fish and ancient turtles.

Yasodhara Rajasinghe; her sister, Lanka; and their comrade-in-mischief, Shiva, grow up in the same house in Colombo — the Sinhala girls downstairs and the Tamil boy upstairs, in a partition that matches their island’s. A mango tree and its fruit are the focus of strife between the Tamil patriarch and Sinhala matriarch, but the children float through the house and its garden, impervious to any divisions.

Before we are introduced to these three, however, we are marched through the machinations and changing fortunes that bring them to life, in a manner that seems breathless and unnecessarily hurried: Grandparents die, marriages are arranged and lovers betrayed. When the violence that has stayed latent finally explodes, the residents of the house are thrown to the wind, navigating difficult, self-consciously new lives in the United States. Munaweera describes how Yasodhara, growing into her Americanness, casts a disdainful glance at the newly arrived refugees gathered at her wealthy uncle’s house for Christmas. She keeps her distance, “lest the aura of foreignness so laboriously shed” rubs off on her.

While the Rajasinghes buy a car, tend a lawn and make a home in Los Angeles, the story returns to Sri Lanka and to an anonymous village in the north, where Saraswathi, a Tamil teenager who finds beauty in mathematical equations, lives with her dancer mother, lame father and giddy little sister. The predations of the national army combine with those of the Tamil Tigers to slowly steal whatever happiness or comfort this family enjoyed. The uneasy relationship between “liberation movements” and those they seek to liberate is convincingly captured, as are the constant negotiations civilians have to make to survive in a war zone — take that child but leave me this one. Still, Saraswathi’s voice never rings true; her experiences are heart-rending, but they seem to smother any glimpse of what distinguishes her from other girls weaponized by the Tamil Tigers.

The beating heart of “Island of a Thousand Mirrors” is not so much its human characters but Sri Lanka itself and the vivid, occasionally incandescent, language used to describe this teardrop in the Indian Ocean. Despite the bloody acts taking place on its soil, Sri Lanka remains a place where flower boys chase cars down mountain passes, “the buffalo stirs in the jade paddy fields” and life abounds restlessly, both on land and under the sea.

NPR review; includes interview & excerpt

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