By Sakshi Selvanathan
The substance of Nayomi Munaweera’s award-winning, debut novel, ‘Island of A Thousand Mirrors’, is very much as its title sounds – sharp and reflective. Set in the 1980s amid a civil conflict the island-country still has trouble alienating itself from to this very day, the novel is an incisive reminder of the ravages of war, destruction and loss on one’s psyche and lifestyle. Yet while it is blithely unafraid to explore themes of outright controversy in the confines of Sri Lanka (and even beyond), the story is woven with a sense of familiarity and sensitivity – providing rich food for thought for those who find themselves grappling with tough, existential questions – spanning but not limited to ones like: ‘Why are we threatened by change?’
The novel is spearheaded by feministic insight, and the author relates the story largely through the eyes of female characters hailing from different generations. One of the protagonists in particular, is purposefully christened with the highly islandic name of Yashodara Rajasinghe, and she acts as the linking chain for the book’s peripheral characters in the story – namely her sister, Lanka Rajasinghe, her parents and grandparents, and her childhood friend Shiva. One feature of the book that leapt from the pages was the plethora of exquisite metaphors utilized by the author to describe the eccentricities and experiences of her characters; in fact, a majority of the explosive imagery found abundantly in each page of the novel stayed true to the Lankan culture and would be undoubtedly capable of inspiring bittersweet nostalgia within the hearts of Sri Lankans inside and outside its national borders.
The plot of the story is propelled forth by the Sri Lankan civil conflict which raged through the years of 1983 to 2009 in the island, causing irreparable rifts between the two ethnic groups of the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils who coexisted in ostensible harmony in the years leading up to the conflagration. And within such a context lay a singularly essential theme that was highlighted in the novel – and one which glared at all who defied it: that of complexity. The novel sought to portray the horrific civil war not as something that could be easily segregated into ‘good versus bad’, ‘right versus wrong’, ‘Tamils versus Sinhalese’. Instead, it underscored the fact, that in a manner akin to many situations involving human interactions, wars cannot be understood in rigid barricades of black and white, but in a myriad shades of grey. Simply phrased, there are no easy answers. This element was perfectly ensconced in a moment where Yashodhara feels helpless and irritated in one of her futile attempts to explain to her American friends what was happening in war-torn Sri Lanka:
“There are no martyrs here. It is a war between equally corrupt forces. I see their eyes glaze over. I realize they do not desire a complicated answer. They want clear distinctions between the cowboys and the Indians, the corrupt administration and the valiant freedom fighters, the democratic government and the raging terrorists. They want moral certainty, a thing I cannot give them.”
While the nuances of the Sri Lankan conflict are explored with careful scrutiny, I would have to mention that some characters – particularly that of Saraswathi – could have been fleshed up further. For instance, the inclusion of her character almost seemed like an afterthought at the time, and the readers do not have the opportunity to get to know her as well as they did Yasodhara. However, acknowledging her exposition of several critical themes – like that of complexity as evinced above – Nayomi Munaweera’s novel succeeds in spotlighting important facets of the war and its effects on the lives of normal people. It is a deeply insightful read.
Our View on the Cover:
Exquisite rendition of a silver-finned fish in a sky-blue background – which itself conceals a light cartographical depiction of a segment of the island. The choice of the sea-creature is quite telling of the water-related symbolism utilized throughout the novel.
Yashodara, Saraswathi, Lanka, Siva, their respective families.
Abundant imagery and piercing language.
Who can read:
Recommended for those above 18 as it contains adult themes and triggering imagery
Our final verdict:
Entrancing story that could have been made better with the further development of one of its protagonists. Nevertheless, it lends a much-needed micro-level view of the events of the war, and it is not afraid to delve into difficult themes.
|Title||Island of A Thousand Mirrors|
|The Asian Review Rating||8 out of 10|