The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

A Victorian era historical novel (London 1893) set over a single year, that follows the footsteps of the young widow Cora Seaborne, in the months following the premature of her husband, a cruel man who’d become indifferent to her, but one who’d been her companion from such a young age, he’d moulded her into what he could tolerate.

She begins to shed the layers of that stifled London life, both physically and mentally, taking her son Francis and their companion Martha to Colchester, swapping gowns and stays for a man’s tweed coat and trousers. She steps out each day taking herself on long walks in search of anything unusual and in particular remnants and fossilised objects unearthed after a recent earthquake and subsequent landslides.

In London, she had befriended Dr Luke Garret, affectionately referred to as the Imp on account of his size. He is at the forefront of medicine at the time, something of a maverick surgeon, fascinated by the potential of yet unproven surgical procedures, assisted by his friend and colleague Spencer. He is fond of Cora and their friendship continues after the death of her husband.

Katherine and Charles Ambrose, frequent visitors to Essex, unwittingly encouraged Cora’s interest in the region and in fossil remains, through various introductions, one of whom recounts to her the life and work of Mary Anning, the English fossil collector and paleontologist, whose discoveries included the first ichthyosaur skeleton. Mary Anning is the protagonist of Lisa Chevalier’s excellent novel Remarkable Creatures.

Meeting her again in Colchester, the Ambrose’s introduce Cora to the Reverend William Ransome and his wife Stella and a unique friendship develops.

Much of the novel is narrated through letters between Cora and these new friends she’s made since her widowhood and one of the subjects that arises is talk of a creature, said to have reappeared since the land was disturbed by the quake, one they’ve dubbed the Essex Serpent. Local beggar Taylor fills her in on the details of the earthquake and the sleeping legend it has awakened.

‘It had come eight years back, by his reckoning, at eight minutes past nine precisely. It had been as fair an April morning as any could remember, which later was counted a blessing, since most were out-of-doors. The Essex earth had bucked as if trying to shake off all its towns and villages; for twenty seconds, no more, a series of convulsions that paused once as if a breath were being drawn and then began again. Out in the estuaries of the Colne and the Blackwater, the sea had gathered into foaming waves which ransacked the shore and reduced every vessel on the water to splinters.’

Cora is delighted to think that modest little Essex, with its Paleozoic rock beneath their feet, laid down five hundred million years before, shrugging its shoulders, creating waves and toppling church steeples and fantasizes about finding her own ichthyosaur.

Taylor feeds her mind with tales of a creature from 1669, when it was believed a serpent came out of the Essex waters into the birch woods and commons.

‘Those were the years of the Essex serpent, be it scale and sinew, or wood and canvas, , or little but the ravings of madmen; children were kept from the banks of the river and fishermen wished for a better trade! Then it was gone as soon as it came, and for night on two hundred years we had neither hide nor hair of it ’til the quake came and something was shook loose down there under the water – something was set free! A great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day.’

Away from the responsibilities and expectations of womanhood and motherhood, long walks reawaken Cora’s naturalist and philosophical interests.

‘It struck her that everything under that white sky was made of the same substance – not quite animal, but not merely earth: where branches had sheared from their trunks they left bright wounds, and she would not have been surprised to see severed stumps of oak and elm pulse as she passed. Laughing, she imagined herself part of it, and leaning against a trunk in earshot of a chattering thrush held up her arm, and wondered if she might see vivid green lichen stippling the skin between her fingers.

Had it always been here – this marvellous black earth in which she sank to her ankles, this coral coloured fungus frilling the branches at her feet? Had birds always sung? Had the rain always this light touch, as if she might inhabit it?’

As Cora pursues fossils and sea creatures, her companion Martha uses the opportunity of having contact with influential men to push her social activism, intent on bringing to light the plight of the working class housing conditions, dire accommodations and landlords who continue to raise rents, not to mention hypocritical attitudes.

‘She spread open the pages and showed him a map on which the poorest of London’s housing was overlaid with plans for new developments. They would be sanitary , she said, and spacious: children would have green spaces to play in and tenants would be free from landlord caprice. But (she flicked contemptuously at the paper) to qualify for housing, tenants must demonstrate good character. ‘They’re expects to live better than you or I ever did to deserve a roof over their children’s heads: must never be drunk or a nuisance to neighbours, or gamble, and God forbid too many children by too many fathers, and had too often. You, Spencer – with your estate and pedigree – you can drink yourself wretched on claret and port and no-one begrudges you any of your homes; but spend what little you have on cheap beer and the dogs and you’ve not enough moral standing to sleep in a dry bed.’

The novel provides a snapshot of the era, with its significant scientific progress and discoveries, its social issues among the classes and between the sexes, medical progress and the conflict between men of science and men of the cloth.

For the most part I enjoyed it immensely, however, if I were to fault it, I thought the seesawing between relentless soul-searching and denial on the part of the Reverend and Cora, in coming to terms with their relationship became a little tedious. It made the second half of the novel drag a little and I notice that all the passages I noted come from the first 200 pages. However the acute sense of place and era and that traversing of issues of the time within the framework of of an engaging story make it all worthwhile.

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Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

 

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious to me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

1947 Migration to Pakistan, wikipedia

There are so many tragic stories surrounding the independence of India and the formation of East and West Pakistan, or the 1947 partition, as it’s often referred to, sadly thousands that will never be told because there is no one left to tell them. It was a moment in history that demonstrated what happens to humanity when fear and panic take hold in the wake of political posturing and it is devastating.

Train to Pakistan was written in 1956, a mere nine years after the British drew a controversial line through India, sending Muslims to the newly named Pakistan and banishing Hindus and Sikhs from that territory.

The author, who died in 2014 at the age of 99, belonged to a Sikh family, with roots in the area that was to become Pakistan, was an outspoken critic of the establishment, intolerant of hypocrisy, who abandoned his studies in law and diplomacy to become a writer. Witness to killings on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, his novel is his reflection of events in that period in history, his frustration with various parties and people in positions of authority and a comment on the individual living in fear.

Khushwant Singh takes the Punjabi farming village of Mano Majra, a small village on the border between India and Pakistan, one of strategic importance to the railway system, and narrates the moment when news of this change arrives and shows how it affects this community.

The trains are symbolic to the story, portenders of what is to come; in the past they have run like clockwork and though they rarely stop, the lives of the villagers is intricately linked to their passing. When the trains become delayed, the rhythm of the village gets out of sync and worse when the trains begin to stop in Mano Majra, life will never be the same.

An educated young man named Iqbal arrives from Delhi, sent by his party to observe the impact of the news.

Well, Babuji,’ began the Muslim. ‘Tell us something. What is happening in the world?
What is all this about Pakistan and Hindustan?
‘We live in this little village and know nothing,’ the lambardar put in. ‘Babuji, tell us, why did the English leave?’

The villagers aren’t convinced by Iqbal’s idealistic view that freedom will follow Independence.

‘Why, don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?
After a long silence the lambardar (Headman/Revenue collector) answered: ‘Freedom must be a good thing. But what will we get out of it? Educated people like you, Babu Sahib, will get the jobs the English had. Will we get more land or more buffaloes?
‘No,’ the Muslim said. ‘Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians – or the Pakistanis.’

Iqbal and a young local man are wrongly arrested for a murder just as the village arrives as a point where it can longer deny what is happening elsewhere in the country. The town’s Muslims are told to leave and eerily quiet trains begin to arrive in the village, causing consternation and fear. The fate of the two young men becomes a political consideration, justice playing no role. It builds to a terrible climax and will leave them and generations to follow scarred by the experience.

Brilliant, a compelling read, and one that was relatively respectful to all who were affected and to readers with vivid imaginations, who don’t need certain scenes described in overly graphic detail.

Buy a Copy of The Train to Pakistan via Book Depository

Further Reading:

Obituary: Khushwant Singh by Reginald Massey

Partition: 70 years On – Authors consider its legacy and the crises now facing their countries

– featuring Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Tahmima Anam, Fatima Bhutto, Kiran Desai, Pankaj Mishra and others

The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

The Last Gods of Indochine is a fascinating work of historical fiction, covering two periods of history in a dual narrative, whose links eventually become clear in a surprising and unsuspecting conclusion.

The dual narrative follows firstly the journey of a young woman recovering from her role as a volunteer in World War I, who decides in 1921 to leave England and follow in her French grandfather’s footsteps to Cambodia. Afflicted by strange dreams that seem to relate to the area she is visiting, she tries to unravel their mystery and some of the things written in her grandfather’s journals that don’t initially appear to make sense.

While Jacquie Mouhot is a fictional character, her inspiration Henri Mouhot is a real historical figure, the first French explorer to rediscover the lost city of Angkor (though it hadn’t been forgotten in the region) and the grand monuments, whose temples, carvings and structure would reveal much about life during the 800 years (802-1431 AD) that the Khmer Empire was at its heights.

In the second narrative we meet Paaku and his teenage friend in 1294 Angkor, just before the beginning of the decline of the vast Khmer Empire and civilisation, a disappearance that mystified historians for many years, how a city of over 1 million inhabitants could disappear, its monuments and infrastructure reclaimed by the jungle, covered over as if it was never there.

Henri Mouhot’s tomb – Photo from 1989 by J.M. Strobino

Even the gravestone memorial to the explorer Henri Mouhot was reclaimed by the jungle, pierced by the insistent roots of a tree, and forgotten for many years; in recent years a new path has been created to try to resurrect it as a visiting place for travellers.

Events change the destiny of these two young men, highlighting the beliefs and vulnerabilities inherent within the culture at the time, that may have contributed to its demise.

For more about my thoughts on the novel and to read the article I wrote on the Rise and Fall of the Khmer Empire, you can visit The Bookbrowse Review.

The Last Gods of Indochine was nominated for the The Man Booker Asian Literary Prize, an award that sadly, has also disappeared.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher for review at Bookbrowse.com

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoing-yaa-gyasiAstonishing, a work of art, an interwoven tapestry of stories that weave across the generations to create something so beautiful, so heartfelt, the thing that connects them is so strong, even when it isn’t known by its characters, somehow Yaa Gyasi conveys that to the reader, so that by the end when something quite magical happens, there is a feeling of grieving for all that has passed and of relief that something new has been found.

I love, love, loved this novel and I am in awe of its structure and storytelling, the authenticity of the stories, the three-dimensional characters, the inheritance and reinvention of trauma, and the rounding of all those stories into the healing return. I never saw that ending coming and the build up of sadness from the stories of the last few characters made the last story all the more moving, I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my face.

How to give it justice in a review, it is so much more than story, we are so much more than our own personal experience and the place(s) we have lived.

Just as Han Kang, the South Korean author of the novel Human Acts wrote in consideration of two fundamental questions about humanity, Yaa Gyasi tells us in an article for the New York Times (referenced below) that she too began to write with a vague but important question that she put at the top of her blank screen: What does it mean to be black in America?

She further explains her inspiration in an article for the Observer (also below)

I began Homegoing in 2009 after a trip to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle [where slaves were incarcerated]. The tour guide told us that British soldiers who lived and worked in the castle often married local women – something I didn’t know. I wanted to juxtapose two women – a soldier’s wife with a slave. I thought the novel would be traditionally structured, set in the present, with flashbacks to the 18th century. But the longer I worked, the more interested I became in being able to watch time as it moved, watch slavery and colonialism and their effects – I wanted to see the through-line.

Homegoing begins with the image of a partial family tree, with two strands and the novel will follow just one family member down each strand, the first two characters who begin these family lines are the daughters of Maame, Effia and Esi.

Effia, whom the villagers said was a baby born of the fire, believed she would marry the village chief, but would be married to a British slave trader and live upstairs in the Cape Coast Castle.

‘The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound. It moved quickly, tearing a path for days. It lived off the air; it slept in caves and hid in trees; it burned, up and through, unconcerned with what wreckage it left behind, until it reached an Asante village. There, it disappeared, becoming one with the night.’

Effia’s father, Cobbe would lose his crop of yams that night, a precious crop known to sustain families far and wide and with it, through his mind would flit a premonition that would reverberate through subsequent generations:

He knew then that the memory of the fire that burned, then fled, would haunt him, his children, and his children’s children for as long as the line continued.’

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Cape Coast Castle (a slave trading castle), Ghana

Esi, whose father was a Big Man, in expressing her empathy for their house girl, would precipitate events that lead her to be captured and chained in the dungeons beneath that same castle, awaiting the slave trading ships that would transport them to their slave masters in America.

‘They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out on to it.’

In these first two chapters of Effia and Esi, the recurring twin symbols of fire and water are introduced, something that each generation subconsciously carries with them and passes on, they will reappear through fears, dreams, experiences, a kind of deep primal scar they don’t even know requires healing, its origins so far back, so removed from anything that can be easily articulated.

Fire (yang) is like the curse of the slave trade, raging through the lives of each generation, even when they appear to have escaped it, as with Kojo’s story, a baby passed to the arms of a woman who helped slaves escape, whose parents are captured, but he will live freely, only to have one member of the family cruelly snatched, perpetuating the cycle yet again, orphaning another child, who must start over and scrape together a life from nothing.

‘They didn’t now about Jo’s fear of people in uniform, didn’t know what it was like to lie silent and barely breathing under the floorboards of a Quaker house, listening to the sound of a catcher’s boot heel stomp above you. Jo had worked so hard so his children wouldn’t have to inherit his fear, but now he wished they had just the tiniest morsel of it.’

Water (yin) to me is the endless expanse, the rootlessness, floating on the surface, feet never able to get a grip, efforts floundering. This symbol is carried throughout Essi’s family line, a cast of characters whose wheels are turning, who work hard, but suffer one setback after another.

The novel is structured around one chapter for each character, alternately between the twin sides of the family, the narrative perspective changing to focus on the new generation, through whom we learn something of what happened to the character in the previous generation, who’ve we left two chapters ago. Importantly, because Yaa Gyasi decides not to write in the present with flashbacks, but writes from the perspective of each character in their present, the novel never falters, it doesn’t suffer from the idling effect of flashbacks, it keeps up the pace by putting the reader at the centre of the drama in every chapter. We must live all of it.

The irony of the structure is that we read an entire family history and see how the events of the past affect the future, how patterns repeat, how fears are carried forward, how strong feelings are connected to roots and origins, we see it, while they experience the loss, the frustration, the inability to comprehend that it is not just the actions of one life that affect that life’s outcome.

This book is like a legacy, a long legacy that revolves between the sadness of loss and the human struggle to move forward, to survive, to do better, to improve. And also a legacy of the feeling of not belonging that is carried within those who have been uprooted, who no longer belong to one place or another, who if they are lucky might find someone to whom they can ignite or perhaps even extinguish that yearning ‘to belong’.

‘We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.’ She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.’

And in writing this novel, Yaa Gyasi perhaps achieves something of what her final character Marcus is unable to articulate to Marjorie as to why his research feels futile, spurning his grandmother’s suggestion that he perhaps had the gift of visions, trying to find answers in a more tangible way, through research and study.

“What is the point Marcus?”
She stopped walking. For all they knew, they were standing on top of what used to be a coal mine for all the black convicts who had been conscripted to work there. It was one thing to research something, another thing entirely to have lived it. To have felt it. How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside it.

Yes, she achieves it through literature, through fiction. And this is literature at its most powerful and best.

This novel is going to win awards in 2017, undoubtedly.

*****

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989 and raised in the US, moving around in early childhood but living in Huntsville, Alabama from the age of 10. She is the daughter of a francophone African literature professor and a nurse and completed her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, University of Iowa. She wrote this, her debut novel at the age of 26.

Further Reading

New York Times, Sunday Review – Opinion, June 18, 2016 – I’m Ghanaian-American. Am I Black?

Review, The Observer, January 8, 2017 – Yaa Gyasi: ‘Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still’

 

Click Here to Buy A Copy of

Homegoing via BookDepository

The Good People by Hannah Kent

good-people

Some of you may know of the author Hannah Kent, whose debut novel Burial Rites, set in Iceland, became a popular bestseller. I never did get around to reading it, though I would still like to, and it was for that reason I was intrigued to pick up this, her second historical novel, set in Ireland during the early 1800’s.

The Good People centres around the lives of three Irish country women, Nora, who has recently become a widow in the same year her daughter passed away, Mary, the teenage housemaid she employs to help her take care of a 4-year-old cripple, the grandson her son-in-law left with her; and Nance, an ageing spinster who lives in a mud shack on the edge of the forest, the one with “the knowledge” whom certain members of the community go to when the remedies of the doctor and the priest yield no cure.

Nora has not consulted Nance before, though her husband Martin had. She is wary of others and their superstitions so keeps the boy hidden from their prying eyes, lest they connect his condition to the string of bad luck in the community, for there are some saying he has ‘the fairy in him’, that he was a changeling, as if possessed.

changeling-pj-lynch

‘A Changeling’ by illustrator & Ireland’s laureate for children’s literature, PJ Lynch – http://www.pjlynchgallery.com

In Irish folklore, people believed that fairies (Irish fairies appear to be a lot more sinister than the Disney kind) could entice or abduct a child away, leaving a malformed substitute (fairy) in its place, recognisable due to its ugly appearance, ill-health, bad temper and old world look of knowledge in their eyes. There were a number of ‘cures’ that might be applied to ‘sweep’ out the fairy and restore the child.

The novel follows the events that occur during the time Mary stays with Nora, as the widow increasingly begins to doubt the child is her grandson and treats “it” as if he were a changeling and Nance’s ways are denounced by the new priest.

‘I have been told you make it your trade to cry at burials.’

‘What is the harm in that?’

‘Your sorrow is artificial, Nance. Rather than comfort those who are afflicted, you live upon their dead.’

Nance shook her head. ‘I do not, Father. That’s not it at all. I feel their sorrow. I give voice to the grief of others when they have not a voice for it themselves.’

The novel immerses the reader deep into the folklore of 19th century Ireland, portraying many of its characters and the community around them as believers of those ancient ways, practitioners of protective rituals, despite the existence of more rational medicines and beliefs.

‘That’s right. Lights. Coming from here the fairies do be, down by the Piper’s Grave,’ Peter continued. Now I might not have the full of my eyes, but I swear I saw a glowing by that whitethorn. You mark my words, there’ll be another death in this family before long.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘First the daughter passes, and now the husband. I tell you, death likes three in company. And if the Good People had a hand in it… well.’

The old ways brush up against the new and culminate in a challenge of one versus the other through the justice system.

Clearly, an extraordinarily well-researched novel, based on certain real events, it succeeds in creating an authentic sense of place, inside the very primitive home of Nora imbued with a strong sense of dread that this is not going to end well. We are shown how things came to be for all three characters and the reactions of the community around them, quick to fear and to judge.

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

Whitethorn, Faerie Tree, said to guard the entrance to the faerie realm

What it really excels at, is to make the reader wonder what is real and what is not, after the rejection of the doctor and the priest, we understand how the maid and the widow want desperately to believe in the knowledge of Nance and her alternative “cure”, providing a fascinating insight into a cultural folklore that had much of its community in its grip (and some say does still).

Despite this authenticity, I found it lagged in the mid-section, as Nance’s back story was filled in, causing me to lose interest in picking the book up for a while. It picked up again as the author returned to moving the plot forward. It’s a book, that despite its flaws is likely to generate interesting discussions, of those ancient rituals and beliefs and the cases that became well-known, of cures gone wrong.

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

(Excerpt from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W.B Yeats)

 Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

In 2016 I read Nayomi Munaweera’s second novel What Lies Between Us and it was one of my Top Reads of 2016, a novel of a young woman trying to adjust to a new life in a new country, though still haunted by both the beauty and deeply buried tragedy of her past, her childhood in Sri Lanka.

thousand-mirrorsIsland of a Thousand Mirrors similarly evokes the childhoods and family life of two families living in the same house. The house is owned by the matriarch Sylvia Sumethra and her husband The Judge, who are Sinhala people (an Indo-Aryan ethnic group originally from northern India, now native to and forming the majority (75%) of the population of Sri Lanka, mostly Buddhist) and upstairs they rent to an extended Tamil family (a culturally and linguistically distinct ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, mostly Hindu).

It is a time when they live side by side in relative peace, although there are prejudices and intolerances at the adult level, attitudes that are initially not understood by children. Multiple generations of children will grow up and some of them will be capable of bridging those differences, until violence, heartache and tragedy taint them.

Sylvia’s daughter Visaka grows up in the house and develops a fearful crush on the son of the family upstairs, later when she is married and gives birth to one of our narrators, her daughter Yasodhara too will befriend Shiva, the next generation son of the same family living upstairs.

Her father Nishan is a twin, the lighter skinned one, his sister Mala, despaired of by her mother Beatrice when she was young, perceived as being unlikely to marry, to be rejected because of her skin tone, finds love without the interference of her family, something of a scandal.

There is silence and then the familiar smack of Beatrice Muriel’s palm against her forehead. “A love marriage,” she says. In her opinion, love marriages border on the indecent. They signify a breakdown of propriety, a giving in to the base instincts exhibited by the lower castes and foreigners. She believes marriages are too important to be relegated to the randomness of chance meetings and hormonal longings. They must be conducted with precision, calculated by experts, negotiated by a vast network of relations who will verify the usual things: no insanity in the family, evidence of wealth and fertility, the presence of benevolent stars.

An old photograph reminds Yasodara of the moment she was forced to recognise the age-old prejudices that infiltrate families, that perpetuated the myth that she and her friend Shiva were different.

We had been talking in our own shared language, that particular blur of Sinhala, Tamil and English much like what our mothers used in the early days, when suddenly my grandmother, her attention telescoped on us, pins him like an insect. Her iced voice, incredulous, “Are you teaching my granddaughter Tamil?” Her hand smashing hard across his cheek. He rips his hand from mine, turns to run. The camera in my father’s hand clicks shut.

When violence enters the town and the soldiers come knocking, their world turns upside down, and both families leave. Yasodara and her family will move to America and start over.

In Part Two we meet Saraswathi, the eldest daughter of a Tamil family in the northern war zone of Sri Lanka. Her family have already lost two brothers to war, and they live in fear of losing a third or worse, something terrible happening to the girls. Sara and her sister are still in school, she hopes to become a teacher, but there are white van abductions, despicable acts of violence and lynchings which put stress on the family. There is pressure to join the Tamil Tigers, a militant group fighting for independence.

There are roofless, bombed-out houses with bullet-splattered walls and empty, eyeless rooms everywhere. I hate these houses, they look like dead bodies or like mad people, laughing through their openmouthed doorways. I want to know what this place looked like before, when all the houses were whole, when people lived in them and cared about them and grew vegetables in front of them, flowers even.

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Nayomi Munaweera by Nathanael F. Trimboli

Munaweera writes exquisitely of the island of Sri Lanka, in lyrical prose that takes the reader inside the family experiences, evoking all the senses, the aroma of the cuisine, the fear and excitement of young, forbidden love, the pain of heartbreak, the palpable tension as sisters walk to school, sometimes witnessing images that will stain their minds and revisit their dreams for years.

Through the forced changes political events put on the families, we become witness to the struggle to adapt, in some the nostalgia for the past will lead them back there, in others, it is as if it never was, they have banished nostalgia and reminiscing from their minds and will do all they can to keep it from their children, not realising that they too will grow up and question their parents origins and be curious to know that part of themselves that provokes questions by others, highlighting the obvious, gaping hole in their identity.

I knew it would be good, it is a prize winning novel and deservedly so, it is endearing, evocative and sensual, touching on both the best of humanity and it’s most despicable, unpalatable horrors and the effect that exposure to those horrors can have on the innocent.

Brilliant. Highly Recommended.

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