According to the film director Jean-Luc Godard, a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end – but not necessarily in that order. Godard had an important point: reality is messy and making sense may require connecting the dots, as we do with this first novel.
VV Ganeshananthan's subject is Sri Lanka, the paradise island torn apart by fratricidal conflict since 1983 (or beyond, if you want to look for older hatreds). Ganeshananthan, an American of Sri Lankan (but Tamil) origin, mixes up the sequence, tossing before the reader shards of memories which look like pieces of broken bangles. But when we look at those broken bangles through her kaleidoscope, her twisting of the lens reveals patterns that make it possible to understand aspects of the conflict, even if the horrors cannot be excused.
Nothing is simple about the Sri Lankan conflict, in which (as the writer Suketu Mehta pointed out to me) nobody accuses Muslims of fanaticism, Hindus are suicide bombers, and Buddhists can be brutal. A global terrorism study found that Muslims did not lead the league table of suicide bombers; the Tamil Tigers did.
Ganeshananthan's story is about one such Tamil Tiger, nearing death, permitted entry into Canada on compassionate grounds. His niece, Yalini, is the protagonist; Yalini's cousin looks down upon her because of her Westernised ways. Yalini tries to make sense of the disjointed narratives surrounding her.
Through Yalini, Ganeshananthan introduces us to her extended family with the village at its centre, and its fraying with the onset of violence. The ailing uncle is memorable: Yalini has many reasons to be angry with him, not due to the battlefield violence, but because of emotional scars left behind. Yes, his wife died when a bomb exploded. But was she the bomber or the bombed?
Yalini wants to unravel the wounded family's history through its unions. Each marriage is different in an infinitely subtle way. But the space between the "love marriage" and "arranged marriage" is filled with categories that bleed outside these neat boundaries: "the Self-Arranged Marriage, the Outside Marriage, the Cousin Marriage, the Village Marriage, the Marriage Abroad... There is the Marriage Under Pressure. There is even Marrying the Enemy, who, it turns out, is not the Enemy at all."
Michael Ondaatje visited Sri Lankan brutality in Anil's Ghost, about a forensic pathologist returning home to investigate abuses. Romesh Gunesekera dealt with its pain obliquely, in Reef and The Sandglass. Ganeshananthan focuses on the journey of one family, in the process painting a broader truth.Reuse content