Sri Lanka: island of coconut palms, wide warm beaches and riots of color. Upon this slip of land, however, a great cultural divide will rift its beauty as it slips into a civil war that leaves no side unscathed. Sinhala and Tamil - two groups of people that belong in one shared space. Our two protagonists are on opposite sides of this conflict, which we learn about slowly as small comments heard in the misunderstanding ears of children turn into the grave understanding of teens and adults.
This novel engaged me with its lyricism - despite the harshness and brutality of civil war, there is beauty to be found in both the words and the peaceful memories of childhood. Munaweera evokes Sri Lanka to those of us who have never given it five minutes thought and I loved how her novel begins with the youth of our main character's parents so we get a sense of how rooted she is within her family and their experiences. The painful and yet comforting grip of a family's history and culture are very real as some characters have to leave home for reasons both harsh and, yet, understandable. All the pain of this book is hashed up in my head right now, I'm trying to pull the strings of horror apart. If you are a sensitive reader, I cannot recommend it. There is no turning away from what humans DO to each other for a "higher cause" and there are scenes of carnage that made me want to close my eyes take the visuals in my mind and swipe them clean. I hate that people have these actual images in their mind from their own real experience. War is putrid and heartbreaking.
Within that, though, I found families that love each other. People who want peace. Gardens full of flowers and kitchens cloudy with spices and steam. I have a sense of Sri Lanka and what its people have recently suffered that makes me glad I made the effort, if for no other reason than to be a better global citizen. I wish that the novel wasn't quite so one sided - we hear far more from one point of view than the other, making it a bit biased towards one group of people - and I had to keep reminding myself of that.
In the end, this book both opened my eyes and broke my heart.