I came across this title on the Goodreads List below, Anticipated Literary Reads for Readers of Colour which is an excellent source for finding out books that are due to be published soon that might be written by authors from different cultures and traditions than those we generally find on the bestseller tables in bookshops.
Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, at Number 2 on the list, stands out immediately with one of the most enticing covers I have seen for a long time and it lives up to that promise of an alluring appearance with a dark, mysterious reveal.
The cover is an apt metaphor of the book, where water plays a significant role in multiple turning points in the novel and the image of a woman half-submerged, reminds me of that ability a person has of appearing to cope and be present on and above the surface, when beneath that calm exterior, below in the murky depths, unseen elements apply pressure, disturbing the tranquil image.
The prologue mentions the maternal instinct of a mother, to sacrifice for her young, describing the aptly named moon bear due to the white shape on its chest, an animal that is hunted for medicinal purposes and capable of going to extremes in order to protect its young.
Structured into five parts, the book is written in the first person by an unnamed narrator, and opens from within a cell. We understand the protagonist is a woman who for her crime often receives hate mail from mothers and marriage proposals from men. She mentions atrocities from the civil war in her home country, stories she says she was detached from, suffering that was not hers.
‘They think that maybe growing up in a war-torn land planted this splinter of rage within me, like a needle hidden in my bloodstream. They think that all those years later, it was this long embedded splinter of repressed trauma that pierced the muscle of my heart and made me do this thing.’
From here, she begins to narrate her story, her confession:
‘…in the beginning, when I was the child and not yet the mother…’
We arrive in a hill city of Kandy in Sri Lanka where she recounts her solitary, yet idyllic childhood, among the scent of tropical gardens, a big old house, ‘sweeping emerald lawns leading down to the rushing river‘ overlooked by monsoon clouds.
Her father is a historian, her mother elegant, beautiful, prone to mood swings, making her feel awkward, tongue-tied and self-conscious, unlike when she is in the garden with Samson, or in the kitchen with Sita, domestic servants with whom she feels more like herself.
Lulled by lyrical descriptive prose into this dreamy, idyllic childhood, albeit with somewhat detached parents, there develops a feeling of something being not quite right, the child’s perspective clouds reality, something haunts her and the reader, a sense of unease.
Tragedy hits the family and the girl and her mother move to America to live with her cousin, Aunt and Uncle.
‘How can I leave this patch of earth that has been mine? Samson taught me once that the hydrangea blooms in a range of shades depending on the soil it sinks its roots into. From faintest pink to darkest night blue, the flower reflects the acidity of its patch of earth. How am I different? This person I am, will I be killed in the transition across the planet? What new person will emerge in that other soil?’
Having always looked towards her cousin as the epitome of modern, something she aspired to, it is a shock to learn of her upcoming arranged marriage, she agrees to be bridesmaid, despite strong feelings to the contrary, grateful that her mother, though troubled, knows better than to push her daughter in this direction.
‘I am grateful for this. Amma might throw plates, lock herself in the bathroom for hours, and cut her wrists. She might scream and yell, but this is something she could not do, this selling of a child to the highest bidder. For once we are united.’
She will fall into the way of life of those who surround her, reinventing herself, almost becoming like one who was born there, if not for that backwash of childhood, that sometimes pushes its way back into her life, threatening to sweep her out of domestic bliss like a freak wave, dumping her mercilessly on the foreshore. As strange memories resurface, her carefully created new world begins to fall apart at the edges as she frantically tries to keep all that is precious to her together.
What Lies Between Us is a powerful, accomplished novel of parts that could be stories in themselves. Munaweera’s deft, lyrical prose lulls and transports the reader into an idyllic childhood of sweet-smelling tropical scents and beauty, open vistas, an enchanted natural world, only to be pulled up short by signs of disturbance, until in an instant they become tragic.
Slowly mother and daughter adapt to the new way of life, except the past will never leave them, it haunts them, consciously and sub-consciously, destroying precious moments and threatening to derail their lives completely.
Like Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child it is a novel highlighting the effect of childhood on an adult, how the past continues to affect the present and can take everyone along with it. It blinds us, and like an invisible cloak with far-reaching tentacles, it can reach into every pocket of our lives, dampening and rotting the good.
Heartbreaking, compelling, so unfair, it is also a story representing the very real cost of ignoring mild disturbances of mental health, portraying how easily they can evolve and transform into horrific tragedy, when left untreated or ignored, not to mention how unforgiving and despicable humanity can be in dealing with those affected by it.
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. I’ve ordered a copy and plan to read it this year as well. She and her family left war-torn Sri Lanka when she was three years old and moved to Nigeria and eventually to America.