In the media today we sometimes encounter the phrase, “the Sri Lanka story”, as though a singular narrative exists. Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors is an elegant debut that attempts, and more often than not succeeds, to complicate this notion. It is a classic diaspora story, only set against a backdrop still fraught with fresh wounds, with the author in the unenviable position of belonging to the defense. Although presented as an account of two sides of the struggle, the book’s more resonant voice is certainly Sinhala and relatively privileged. Starting out with these facts, Munaweera has crafted – in an unapologetic, unaligned tenor – a novel that succeeds in offering a new perspective to a situation that continues to unfold.
The novel opens evocatively in a double-storey house on Colombo’s Wellawatte beach, where one of its two narrators – Yasodhara Rajasinghe, elder daughter and eventual American immigrant – spends her childhood, and recounts with omniscience the lives and choices around her. The upper floor of the house is rented out to a Tamil family, the Shivalingams, over two generations. The riots of 1983 send them all scattering: Yasodhara, her sister Lanka and their parents to America and the Shivalingams to the north of the country. Neither sister completely lets go of the memory of their childhood companion, Shiva, or of the country they leave behind.
Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, another girl is growing up – intelligent, determined Saraswathi. Her brothers have disappeared into the civil war, and her ambition to become a schoolteacher is all that holds her family together. But Saraswathi’s life takes a tragic turn, and left with no other choice, she joins the LTTE. Her voice begins persuasively, but loses conviction along the way – perhaps partly a structural problem, because we are introduced to her so far into the book that – used as we are to Yasodhara’s strong, lovely narration – her appearance is unexpected and her story far more compressed. Yasodhara as narrator captures an idyllic childhood and nostalgia for the same perfectly, but the intensity of the arc of Saraswathi’s trajectory is not as impressively conveyed. What Saraswathi eventually becomes is someone stripped of her humanity, collateral damage turned pawn, but that transformation is in some ways predictable. But Saraswathi’s story is closer to the uni-dimensional “Sri Lanka story” we hear of often; it is Yasodhara’s that is a truly fresh perspective.
The strength of the novel lies in its clean, graceful prose. Munaweera’s language is expressive, tautly-rendered in such a way that its lush passages never slip into overwhelm. This is a difficult task for the diaspora novel, because in certain ways the book treads over territory already made familiar by American writers of Indian descent like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri. Yet when Munaweera writes of the immigrant condition, she is neither clichéd nor cloying. Yes, there’s something familiar about “[s]o many lonely men dreaming in Sinhala, moaning in their chilly beds, wanting American green cards and perfectly cooked eggplant curry” – yet it is tempered by the eloquence of the line that follows: “[s]o much palpable need, such archaeologies of desire that I am suddenly afraid”.
Despite its emotional ambition, however, Island of A Thousand Mirrors falters a little when it comes to political scope. Though Munaweera handles the complexity of the early stirrings of the civil war well, and presents a nuanced and necessary voice, the novel ends abruptly with the death of Prabhakaran. The war is over – but only technically. Certainly not in the real world, where three years on Sri Lanka continues to struggle to find a meaningful peace. For the reader who knows this – i.e. the reader who was introduced to the conflict neither through this book alone nor through news of the killing of the LTTE leader – this feels like a cop-out. She quotes Rajapakse in the book’s final pages and makes an observation: “‘I don’t want to dig into the past. I don’t want to open the wound.’ He knows the wound is there, just under the surface, waiting to erupt. Over the decades we will witness how it heals or festers.”
But the novel too hesitates the same way. If Munaweera had extended this slim novel just a little way further into the post-war era and chosen to approach a few of the many current complexities, a well-roundedness that is otherwise missing could have completed an otherwise moving picture.
An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.