Bone China, By Roma Tearne Harper

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The Independent Culture

It is September 1939, the war is official, the island of Ceylon is under British crown rule, and Aloysius has just staked his life on a hand of cards and lost. He must bear the bad news to his wife, Grace de Silva, as they sit in the drawing-room surrounded by exquisite rare-bone china which was her mother's.

Just as fragile as material fortune are identity and history, which shatter devastatingly over the course of this novel. Roma Tearne traces how loved ones become strangers: Aloysius isn't the man Grace thought he was; once brimming with effervescent charm, he has descended into drunken dissipation. The de Silva children must leave their elite school, their parents unable any longer to afford it: for their son Jacob, "Something inexplicable and infinitely precious seemed to be breaking inside him".

Bone China has a strong narrative backbone, encompassing characters who are spineless and courageous, fragile and tough. The story spans three generations of Sri Lankan women and from Ceylon to Colombo to London, where, as immigrants, some struggle to gain their bearings, whereas the flexible Anna Meeka adapts to a new environment and survives. From palacial beginnings to pauperly endings, how does one remain rich in spirit though poor in pocket?

As Tearne sifts through the shards of these broken, bittersweet lives, the prose is as polished and pictorial as an intricate piece of china. Tearne has also worked for 20 years as a painter, installation artist and film-maker, and her first novel, Mosquito, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, explored the relationship between a middle-aged novelist and a teenage artist. And indeed, what remains strong and durable as all else around crumbles is the novel's steadfast idea that it is art which might shore up the fragments of fading memory.