The Tinker travelled extensively courtesy of the Second World War and as I was growing up it became a family joke, whenever a country was mentioned he'd pipe up 'I've been there' and Ceylon was one of them. But Ceylon and Trincomalee in particular was one of his favourites so it's a place name etched in my mind from many years ago.
Then I was recently tuned into 'that teardrop country' Ceylon - Sri Lanka again having read Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, . Love Marriage by V.V.Ganeshananthan, and published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, makes the most perfect companion read to that as the history of a fractured and changing family mirrors the turmoil of a country blighted by ethnic violence, social class inequalities and doubtless the remnants of colonial rule. A new generation breaking with the old traditions and all reflected in the changing face of marriage
'In this globe-scattered Sri-Lankan family, we speak only of two kinds of marriage. The first is the Arranged Marriage. The second is the Love Marriage. In reality there is a whole spectrum in between, but most of us spend years running away from the first toward the second.'
Yalini's uncle has finally left his native country and returned to be with his sister and her family to die and gradually the truth about his past is revealed.
'It would be false to say that there is a beginning to the 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'
Indeed this story is written in a series of many short extracts, fragmented parts of the whole and it works really well. This is how events happened and it's that useful imagery of the patchwork or the jigsaw that prevails as slowly all the gaps are filled.
It was the female characters who somehow prevailed for me in this novel,
'Sri Lankan women are always trying and failing to bring order to a world of men'
and there are some real moments to cherish. After a long wait for a child Yalini's U.S.exiled parents finally set eyes on her,
'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.'
On the same day in 1983, and across the other side of the world the
family's kith and kin are being slaughtered as anti-Tamil violence
breaks out on the streets of Colombo.
Narrated by Yalini, and based for much of the novel in Canada, a country which opened its doors to Sri-Lankan Tamil refugees, there is much to learn here about the history of a country about which I'll own up to having been vague. In the interests of self-preservation and in order to change, many have surrendered the battle and left their homeland and I am now much clearer, albeit through a fictional account, of the origins of the Tamil Tigers about which I knew little.
Books like this which offer insights through fiction are hugely successful with me and several come instantly to mind, The Golden Age by Tahmima Aman, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer
This was a slow and ponderous read, so much to appreciate and through a beautifully written story I immersed myself completely in the culture and traditions of Sri-Lanka over several freezing cold grey and stormy Devon afternoons. With notions of loss of homeland, displacement and diaspora ever-present it was but a hop to be led right back to browse W.G.Sebald's The Emigrants at the same time.