24 Aug / Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
In a house by the sea in Colombo, Sri Lanka, live two families: below are the Sinhala owners, the Rajasinghes with two daughters, Yasodhara and Lanka; upstairs are the Tamil clan of Shivalingams with their son, Shiva, twinned by a shared birthday to Yasodhara. While the adults wage “Upstairs-Downstairs, Linga-Singha wars” over mangoes, films, flowers, hanging laundry, and Elvis the Pelvis, the children laugh, play, love.
Clearly, the children here know so much more than the adults: without prejudice or history, they walk up and down stairs, cross barriers, share lives without hesitation. Social, political, ethnic labels are rendered meaningless in a language they innocently refuse to understand.
Their idyll is broken when civil war terrorizing the island nation literally arrives on their doorstep. The war will last over a quarter-century, but Yasodhara and her family are able to escape to Los Angeles where the two sisters will come of age as almost-Americans.
Meanwhile, in a village north of Colombo, a teenage girl lives quietly at home with what remains of her family – her three older brothers have already been subsumed by the Tamil cause, and she and her younger sister are her parents’ only comfort. Instead of the teacher she hoped to become, she is brutally, mercilessly indoctrinated into war, first as victim and then as victimizer.
Years later, when each of the children have grown into young adults, the narrative threads intersect and implode in a single afternoon, and the survivors will be left to forge new lives as best as they can.
Like her protagonist Yasodhara, debut novelist Nayomi Munaweera is Colombo-born and partially California-grown-and-educated; Munaweera’s family had an intermediate immigration to Nigeria, until a 1984 military coup pushed them to settle Stateside. For much of Munaweera’s life – between 1983 until 2009 – her birth country has been fractured by war.
That Munaweera has lived longer on the other side of the world is perhaps what afforded her enough distance to write from both ‘sides’ of war’s destruction of her homeland. Her prose is spare and succinct, unflinching in horror, unsentimental in hope. She offers a backstory to terrorism, even as she breathes empathy into tragedy. Her Thousand Mirrors proves to be a repository of multiplying reflections – of betrayal and loyalty, division and tolerance, truculence and understanding, momentary hatred and everlasting love.
Published: 2012 (South Asia), 2014 (United States)