Brixton Beach, By Roma Tearne

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There is an ironically named 1970s skateboard park in South London known as Brixton Beach, a concrete patch a stone's throw from the High Street. In the same spirit, Roma Tearne has given her latest novel a title with a twisting double meaning. A family saga based on the lives of three generations of Sri Lankans, stretching from the beaches of the Indian Ocean that inspire artist Alice Fonseka to imagined ones in Lambeth, it is a poignant follow-up to her previous novel, Bone China.

Threads, themes and characters in Brixton Beach seem familiar from Tearne's earlier writing. Alice is a gifted and exuberant nine-year old, daughter of a Singhalese mother and Tamil father, when she arrives in Britain in the late 1960s just as the civil war in Sri Lanka is taking hold. Her mother, traumatised by the stillbirth of her second daughter and the death of a close friend, finds Britain unbearably cold. Worse still, Alice's father Stanley has turned into an unlikely lothario, flitting between the bed of an English civil servant and a Tamil spiritual leader. The marriage and family life founder.

This Brixton is devoid of pleasure so Alice works hard to find it through her art, the legacy of her Singhalese grandfather Bee Fonseka, who is grieving her departure. Here Tearne has taken a bold step by portraying Bee as a political figure who risks his life to help Tamil victims of the terror spreading across the island, with "ghost-people disappearing softly through the rustling trees, voiceless and despairing".

Born of parents whose relatives are at war, Alice feels alienated from both and struggles to find her own identity in London. There is relief from this emotional turmoil in Tearne's landscapes, from which Alice and her grandfather draw their spiritual sustenance. Like Tearne's paintings (she is also an accomplished artist and has mounted exhibitions in London and Oxford to coincide with the novel's publication), they are delicately and finely wrought.

The impact of civil war on those considered lucky enough to have emigrated is poignant. Haunted by the loss of her infant, Alice's mother Sita degenerates, losing her memory and becoming obsessed with dolls, tragic symbols of her unresolved grief. But the little white coffins she fashions echo the corpses that Bee sees washing up on the beautiful beaches of Alice's childhood. In both cases the dead remained unburied and improperly mourned.

Tearne takes another writerly risk here by opening the novel on 7 July 2005. Like Ian McEwan in Saturday she has a surgeon, Simon Swann, caught up in the events, searching for his lover amid the chaos. This is a tough challenge, as every Londoner has their own vivid memories of the victims stumbling from the underground and neighbourhoods festooned with yellow tape. But Tearne pulls it off because so much of the novel is deeply grounded in the slow eruption of violence in Sri Lanka, so that the terrorist attack seems part of a larger global conflict.

Although the novel's plot perhaps suffers from borrowing from her previous works, Tearne is a vividly sensitive writer who spares her readers unnecessary sentiment and hones in on raw emotions just below the surface. The refugee in all of us can recognise the desperate desire to belong and the sometimes terrible price we pay for it.