Hello dear SepiaReaders, it’s that girl with half a face again. I’ve been absent from the bunker for a while but fresh air is vastly overrated so I wormed my way back in. I hope to hunker down in the bowels of our concrete barracks and start posting furiously. Whether this is promise or a threat greatly depends on how drunk you are while reading this. Cheers!
To kick things off, I’m delighted to discuss the debut novel by non other the mutiny’s own V.V. “Sugi” Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage. Published recently by Random House U.S., the book will also be available in Canada, the U.K. Italy, France, Romania, and Germany. So GO BUY IT, wherever you are. Sugi’s posts on Sepia introduced us to a eloquent writer unafraid to tackle to thorny issues surrounding the Sri Lankan conflict with even-handedness and humor. In Love Marriage she pulls off the astonishing feat of writing about Sri Lanka with an honesty that doesn’t simplify, tackling issues without a trace of polemics, and a love that still remains clear-eyed.
Super full disclaimer: it’s proved incredibly difficult for me to distance myself enough to write a fair review. I know and adore the author as a person, she’s a fellow Sri Lankan, instead of some Kaavya Viswanathan-style American Desi fluff, she wrote about Sri Lanka. And instead of a pretty “beaches and jungles” treatment, she delves into a sticky thicket of diasporas, internecine warfare, generational drift, ‘ethnic’ identity creation, politics, love, nostalgia, loyalty…
(Uh, wait. The book is a fun read, I swear!)
To continue disclaiming: I wrote a review a while ago and kept revising it. Then Sandhya’s awesome Q&A was in the works so I sat on the review so we’d get both pieces up simultaneously. Then I found out that the dastardly speedy Ultrabrown posted a review today (with mistakes!!) so to juice things up a bit, this review was rewritten to go head-to-head with the fearsomely logorrheic (or, to use my favorite made-up word for him, verbacious) Manish.
Prepare to duck as the verbal darts (or in my case, coconuts) fly!Manish, as we’ve learned to expect, begins with the cover. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t like it. But while I’ve disagreed with him about covers before, I don’t take him to task on aesthetic considerations because a) I don’t care, b)he has a right to dislike, c)covers are meant to invoke subliminal associations with other books you may remember fondly. He’s too smart for that, so well, fine.
Coconuts thrown: 0 (Hefted, but not thrown)
I do grit my teeth, however, when a reviewer passes judgement on a book he/she clearly didn’t read very carefully. How can you pontificate when you make errors in a basic summary? From the review:
The book is written through the eyes of Yalini, a girl in her early 20s whose parents Murali and Vani left Sri Lanka after the anti-Tamil pogrom of â€˜83 and built a comfortable life in Toronto.
Actually, they moved to New England. And they certainly left before 1983 since Yalini was born in July 1983, as the riots began in Sri Lanka. It’s pretty clear on page 17:
I am Yalini, their daughter. In July of 1983, I was born in the same New England that had welcomed my parents, Vani and Murali, so long ago.
Coconuts thrown: 5 (Her birthday is hugely symbolic, she’s in her 20s when her family moved to Toronto, to take care of a sick uncle, and the throng of Sri Lanka Tamils in Toronto is a strange and new experience for her. How do you miss this?)
There’s even a remarkable passage in the book that splits Yalini’s birth with the events on TV:
it’s a girl, the nurse said to Murali, at last my father. I was swaddled in blankets and placed in his arms. I immediately caught hold of his Heart with both tiny fists… I was born, and halfway around the world, Tamil people died, betrayed by their own country, which did nothing to save them… the television was already on. My father’s colleague’s sat around it. They had been waiting for the new father to emerge, to ask about baby weight and names. Now their good wishes died on their lips. No glad handshakes, no questions about the child. Instead they watched my father watching the news. And there on the screen, my father saw everything he had once believed in, burning.
To get back to my point about evaluating texts based on faulty reading, from the review:
Similarly, a trope which could have been desi film homage actually reads more like clichÃ©. One of the plot machinations which gets Vani into her marriage with Murali involves her identical twin sister suffering a horrible accident. But thereâ€™s no obvious wink to the reader.
Where to begin..the identical twin accident was between Murali’s mother Tharshi and HER twin, Kunju. The “plot machination” so glibly referred to gets Murali’s mother Tharshi together with his father Jegan, and has nothing to do with his own quiet wooing of Vani.
I’m also quite mystified as to why this scene was perceived as desi film homage and therefore owed the reader a wink. It was as powerful as a similar scene in Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting. In Desai’s book the cause of the tragedy remained unknown, either self-immolation or the machinations of an an evil mother-in-law (hey, no one called that Bollywood! I’ll see your trope and raise you, Manish), while here sheer randomness of the accident deepens the tragedy:
As Kunju set the oil lamp down on the mat on the floor in front of the household shrine, the edge of her mother’s sari caught in the flame. It ran up the silk like a long-legged and hungry spider, licked at her long braid, edged toward her face and wide dark eyes. It wound around her waist like a caressing hand and lit her body up her slender throat to her face. (p.71)
Coconuts thrown: 7 (3 for the mistake, 4 for the off-mark snark)
On to more analysis:
The author erects certain metaphors in Caps like The God of Small Things, which makes them inexplicably Twee. The same Affectation used to define Terms in legal Agreements somehow becomes adorable in Literature.
Okay, I can see how the random seeming use of Capitalization can seem odd or Annoying to a reader. Especially, ahem, a Western reader. But the neat thing is that both The God of Small Things and Love Marriage seem singularly unconcerned about whether a Western reader gets it. Those random caps? That’s the most desi thing about writing in English you can do. Sort of a Victorian stylistic twitch that lingered past the Edwardian and well into the Elizabethan years in the colonies. As a sidenote, I believe Susanna Clarke used the same olde-style in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to give it that 1800s olde-tymey feel. Anyway, my point is that this isn’t an affection on the part of the author as much as it is an authentic hewing to the affectations of a particular culture. God, I mean, I remember being sent off to weekly elocution lessons back in Sri Lanka, miserably stumbling through Daffodils and other such cutting-edge poetry.
Ah, where was I? Something about overly literal recursive metaphors?
But in this book, the metaphors recurse â€” the literal symbolizes things of the same form. To wit, instead of noses for dandas, hearts for Hearts. The book uses flesh-and-blood pumps to represent flawed emotional Hearts, and arranged or love marriages for proper or improper Marriages. And this strikes me as far too literal.
Hmm, no. The book does use the body and its various parts (Murali’s imagined heart murmur) and illnessess (Kumeran’s cancer) as a metaphor, but not for something as obvious as emotional states. Instead it’s an examination of questions: when does a body, the flesh, bone, sinew, become a person? After death? Before we kill? Does a heart hold secrets? How do the secrets hide? When do they murmur to the conscious mind? Does the past flow in our veins? When you are a refugee, a nomad, a displaced person and have nothing, certainly no possessions, no mementoes of the past…does your body carry that intangible weight? If we are the children of the displaced, as Yalini is, what can her parents give her of her burned, bullet-riddled, decimated past beyond that which they genetically bestowed upon her….and the stories of aunts, marriages, and relatives, that come with it?
Coconuts thrown: 10 (read the book again!)
Moving onto the larger issue of the LTTE, Manish claims:
But she soft-pedals the central problem with the LTTE, the reason why people call them terrorists: their willingness to target noncombatants, to kill people unaffiliated with the Sri Lankan military or high-ranking politicians.
This is a matter of opinion, and cannot be anything but. I’m pretty firmly on record as anti-LTTE in every way, but to ignore the human faces behind the nihilistic stripes is not the path to redemption or solutions I think. For the most part, the raw recruits are terribly young men and women who are damned if they join or damned if they don’t. And the book, while deeply sympathetic to Tamils, is careful to note the death of noncombatants: a Tamil teacher shot for trying to arrange a cricket match with the Sri Lankan Army, a mayor killed at night, an ex-fiancee killed in a bomb blast, a friend’s brother murdered for disagreeing. With these examples and more, the LTTE are held accountable. The problem of LTTE support in Canada is addressed at well. The drug and gun sales that funnel money back to the LTTE, the turf wars that may erupt at any time between the supposed Canadian LTTE loyalists:
Their sons, the right age and size and anger to be militants, in the wrong country. The thing about anger: it always goes somewhere. (p. 140)
Manish, machang, you know I love you. I await your riposte breathlessly.
Anyway, this post is already beyond the bounds of decency, so here’s my quick take:
Despite the title this is not a story about love. Or marriage. Or even about the relationships (uncle, cousin, brother-in-law) that arise from marriages. The marriages are like small interlinked frames, upon which hang larger themes of identity, nationhood and morality. Clever and effective devices used to approach that migraine-inducing issue of the conflict in Sri Lanka.
Kumaran, the uncle picked up revolutionary ideas while in Britain and returned to Sri Lanka to join the Tigers, only to find out his former fiancee died in a Tiger-planted bomb blast. Kumaran who protested his sister Vani’s marriage to the improper Murali with threats of LTTE retribution, who is cared for by both upon his deathbed. Uncle Neelan, who married a Sinhalese and remembers the his village offering her tea in a broken cup, a “small but unspeakable rudeness in a country where all hospitality and love begins with tea.” Logan, the dorai of a tea plantation with cooks at his beck and call who works as a security guard upon immigration to Canada. Beautiful aunt Harini who marries a shiftless drunk but loves him still. And the deepest secrets of aunt Uma, who slowly walks backward into the labyrinth of her mind.
These and more are bequeathed to Yalini, who also faces a doppelganger…her cousin Janini, Kumaran’s daughter and an LTTE soldier in her own right. The divergent paths of the parents have created daughters of stark contrast, and nowhere is this more sadly and lyrically embodied.
Propriety is mentioned frequently, but as with all mentions of marriages, arranged or love-induced, the book really uses the variations between, the divergence from propriety, to examine the muddy ground between Sinhalese or Tamil. To note that neither is blameless, neither is Proper in its position. This is really the first novel to tackle the Tamil exodus from Sri Lanka, and the fragmentary structure suits the story well because there is no Truth here that the reader can boldly face. We can only understand the tragedy of Sri Lanka obliquely, through vignettes….the book holds a mirror up to various aspects, and staring at the mirror, we must struggle to piece together the imperfect whole.
There are no answers, there is no one true narrative, but surely this is a beautiful start:
It would be false to say that there is a beginning to a story, or a middle, or an end. Those words have a tidiness that does not belong here. Our lives are not clean. They begin without fanfare and end without warning. This story does not have a defined shape or a pleasant arc. To record it differently would not be true. (p. 57)