“Further out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him.” These lines from the opening pages of Nayomi Munaweera’s luminous debut novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors contain the crucial arc of what will follow -- a chronicle of a beautiful island and the civil war that devastates it, the stories of lives and loves shattered before their true potential can be fulfilled, the holding on to hope that the mirrors can, at some point in the future, be put back together again.
The island country is Sri Lanka, the narrator is Yasodhara, of Sinhalese origin, who as a young girl, along with her parents and her sister Lanka, flees the riot-torn streets of Colombo to the safety of California. The country they leave behind is about to be consumed by a civil war -- between the Tamil Tigers in the north seeking to secede and the ruling Sinhalese majority. Wielding a masterful authorial omniscience, Yasodhara recounts her personal history, starting from the childhood of her parents in a Sri Lanka freed from the yoke of the British in 1948, through the riots in 1983 that forces her family to leave for an immigrant life in America, to the culmination of the war more than two decades later. The novel is not an account of the country’s history or the reasons for the civil war, nor is it an attempt to place the blame on either of the warring factions (the novel’s most heart-stopping episodes -- and there are many of these: the loss in the riots of husband and child of a beloved aunt, the rape of an innocent, the death of a sister -- reveal perpetrators from both sides). The novel concentrates, instead, on the cycle of inhumanity that an ethnically-motivated conflict unleashes in inhabitants of the same land, and the humanity that struggles to survive the depredations. The thread of Yasodhara’s narrative involves various loves thwarted or destroyed: Yasodhara’s mother’s love for her Tamil neighbor, Yasodhara’s aunt’s love for her husband, Yasodhara’s childhood love for her neighbor’s son (also a Tamil), the love between sisters, the love of mothers for their children, and various episodes of unrequited or spurned or lost love. The climactic violence that allows Yasodhara to be reunited with her childhood love functions as a stand-in for the final act of violence the country will live through, a haunting foreshadowing of the price that will be paid before the sundered country is brought together again.
Munaweera’s writing is everywhere remarkable: a concentrated lyricism that is supple, and at the same time, muscular. Descriptions of places and people, customs and sights and tastes and smells, come alive with astonishing economy. Of Yasodhara’s mother’s childhood, Munaweera writes, “When the sea breeze blows, a snowy flurry of flowers seeps into the house so that Visaka’s earliest and most tender memory is the combined scent of jasmine and sea salt.” Of the difference between Sri Lankan and Californian oranges: “On the island they were meager green orbs, sour and full of pips. Here oranges are a marvel, fat and bright as sunlight, their juice sparkling, their skins falling away into swirls and curls.” Of the single men who respond to advertisements for Yasodhara’s arranged marriage: “So many lonely men dreaming in Sinhala, moaning in their chilly beds, wanting American green cards and perfectly cooked eggplant curry. So much palpable need, such archaeologies of desire that I am suddenly afraid.” And Munaweera does not shy away from depicting the gory details of violence, employing the same techniques of acute observation and compression. Of the decapitated head of a victim of suicide bombing, she writes: “Her eyes and mouth agape, hair streaming down the steps and with it the various sinews and octopus strips of flesh blown from her neck.” This boldness in approaching even the grotesque with a clear eye, coupled with her ability to capture the essence of an experience through striking imagery, stands Munaweera in good stead when it comes to describing the main acts of violence that lie at the heart of the novel. These are harrowing sections, and Munaweera gives them the weight they deserve, without glossing over them, or sensationalizing them.
Towards the last third of the novel, Munaweera falters a little through the abrupt introduction of a new voice: that of Saraswathi, a girl of Tamil origin who will later join the Tigers. Though these sections are powerful as written, one wonders if the book would have been better served by adapting Yashodhara’s audacious and empathetic omniscience (used to great effect in the earlier sections of the novel to relate her parents’ experiences in Sri Lanka) to subsume Saraswathi’s point of view as well (especially since Saraswathi’s voice is similar enough to Yasodhara’s, and her story while riveting, is less nuanced and more predictable). Also, the events that bring the main actors together for the climax feel more accidental than inevitable, and the reader is left wondering if the essential randomness that characterizes tragedies in times of conflict is one of Munaweera’s themes for the book. And what to make of the failed loves that bring both Yasodhara and her sister Lanka back to the island for the climax? Love as a concern, it seems, is for the privileged, while the less fortunate have more pressing worries like survival, and keeping body and soul together.
But these are minor complaints compared to the book’s vast accomplishments. This is a searing debut, as fearless as it is beautiful, introducing a writer who calls out to be read. The book is already on its way, having been long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. No doubt, Nayomi Munaweera is a writer to watch out for.
Nawaaz Ahmed is a transplant from Tamil Nadu, India. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Cornell University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he won Hopwood awards for his short stories, non-fiction, and his novel-in-progress.