This review is part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.
I knew nothing about Sri Lanka before reading Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. It’s embarrassing to think about, actually. My “knowledge” of Sri Lanka comprised of the fact that a seventh grade classmate of mine was half Sri Lankan, and a friend of mine had to go there for a business trip once. That’s it. That’s not even anything about Sri Lanka itself. Pathetic, right? So I was really excited to read Munaweera’s novel and maybe even learn a thing or two about the country and its history.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows two families, one Tamil, one Sinhala, that are on opposite sides of the drawn out and brutal Sri Lankan civil war. The eldest daughter of each family (Yasodhara from the Sinhalese family, Saraswathi from the Tamil family) narrates the novel, which starts when Yasodhara and Saraswathi are both just children. It explores how families (women in particular) negotiate history, rivalries, heartbreak, exile, and the longing of belonging. Above all, it explores survival, and the harsh demands it places on those who seek to achieve it in the most dire of circumstances.
Munaweera brought Sri Lanka to life in this novel. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can picture the lush imagery she conjured with her almost lyrical prose. I can feel the humidity of tropical Sri Lanka sticking to my skin, the juiciness of the ripe mangoes dripping down my chin, the warmth of a fragrant curry in my belly. Munaweera also is excellent at bringing the feelings of her characters to life; all of the fears and hopes in this book were ones I felt a little too close to the heart, even the ones that were at odds with my moral compass. There’s so much that’s packed into this novel, actually, from romantic love to arranged marriages, the caste system and skin color, racism and immigration, and familial love and friendship. Not once does the novel come across as heavy handed or unwieldy, though.
I especially love how Munaweera chose to depict the stories from both sides of the Sri Lankan civil war. After all, war affects everyone involved, not just the winners or the losers. Neither side was cast as right or wrong, even as the wartime brutalities piled up and the atrocities became more frequent. I mean, yeah, one can argue that war does have a “right” side and a “wrong” side, but at the end of the day, everyone’s affected. Perhaps in different ways, but that doesn’t mean one side emerges from war unscathed.
That’s Sri Lanka checked off my list of countries, then! Next up? New Zealand!