Homesick, By Roshi Fernando


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The Independent Culture

Roshi Fernando is a powerful new voice of the Asian immigrant experience. Her debut comprises a series of linked stories centred around a cast of characters, some of them Sri Lankan migrants. The book offers complex, mosaic characters and compelling storylines rather than racial stereotypes and sententious proselytising.

Preethi and her brothers are the Westernised children of Sri Lankan migrants. Preethi embraces British culture, furtively slugging alcohol and sneaking cigarettes. Her parents are obsessed with academic success, and chastise her for adopting "negative" aspects of British behaviour. Gertie, a relative, adores her foster child May, and grieves about her impending return to her birth mother. Carping Shamini cossets one daughter and neglects the other. Alcoholic Basit has been dispatched to England by his outraged parents.

Fernando is adept at human touches that bring her characters to life. Small children at a party "play Monopoly for real money they have rummaged from coats hanging on the bannister". She leaps back and forth across decades between stories, zooming the lens to the future within them. We know at a wedding that the marriage will last 18 years.

In the shocking "The Bottle of Whisky", Basit, the brunt of casual racism, is drawn into horrific crime. Unthinking racism is evident in many stories, from Preethi being called "chocolate drop" at nursery to being asked where she comes from as a teen. "South London," she replies, stubbornly.

Charm, humour and poignancy alternate with dark trials. As a child, Preethi makes friends with a fellow outcast: working-class "Danny the Mong", so called because of his deformed arm. Ironically, both Danny and Preethi's relatives think that the other is "not our sort". In her teens, a male acquaintance of Preethi's brother stays the night. Preethi knows her father thinks "we might meet in the night on the way back from the bathroom... and I might spontaneously be laden with child". Many stories are very moving: one about the aftermath of multiple bereavement, another about May's traumatised son. Fernando's insight, wit, sensitivity and versatility mark her as a striking new talent.