If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating.
- Sylvia Plath, The Rival
Born in Sri Lanka, and though now in Australia, Manthri’s never quite left it. Her watercolour childhood crumbles away under her culture’s idea of womanhood. In Australia, with her family, her patriarchal husband, and thoroughly Western children, her life peels away. She finds herself trapped in land that does not support her culture, and trapped in a culture that does not care for her happiness. If she loves her husband, that love sleeps below layers of bondage and despair. She loves her children, but she knows, ‘With my love of [them] I built a husk around me. And lay secure in its warmth. But they skin the husk as it dries, layer by layer.’
That characters come off as stereotypes is either a fault of the writing or a symptom of the narrator’s isolation, or both. We have Mahendra, the dictatorial and divorced patriarch, more concerned with caste, race, religion and respectability than happiness. He sees living in Australia as a necessary evil, suffered for the sake of employment and, eventually, to get away from the troubles in Sri Lanka. He adheres to his culture’s dictates and would have his family do the same, whether they acquiesce, as does Manthri, or resist, as do his children. Her children, Devake and Nelum, explore two bittersweet tragedies of parenting. Devake, her layabout son, will never get into medical school, despite his father’s insistence. He won’t accomplish much of anything. But because of that Manthri can feel like a mother to him, feeling the underlying love that comes from a weak child seeking support. Nelum, her ambitious daughter, must, in order to live for herself, exile herself from the family. Her father would not have her become a doctor, rather he would marry her off immediately so she becomes a respectable wife and mother. Manthri, with understandable resentment, must accept that her daughter can only attain happiness away from her.
I could call these characters lazily detailed clichés*, but whether this is the fault of Lokuge or Manthri is for debate. Manthri, held prisoner within herself, tries and fails to connect with others, as such all she has are broad stroke images of them: clichés. Or perhaps Lokuge justifies her own clichés by making them Manthri’s**.
Lokuge’s writing flows like lyrics. Only in the novel’s early chapters does her language border on the over-flowered, but such floweriness is suitable for Manthri’s state of mind. She looks back on childhood, that time when ignorance painted the world in expressionist strokes, a life sans despair and even hope, an eternal present with no thought of future. A lost arcadia amplified by nostalgia contrasting a harsh present.
At around 50,000 words the book reads quickly and easily. It’s not plot heavy. Scenic routes run between point A and B, and B and C, making it simple to avoid getting lost on the course. But do not let its ease of access fool you. Though light, it explores heavy themes, themes of isolation, despair, and cultural bondage among others. Lokuge’s character’s may not pop off the page, but the one character whose experience matters, Manthri, is explored fully and effectively.
*There is the argument that stereotypes exist for a reason; there are living people who adhere to them. But, I would say, in fiction any character sufficiently examined defies categorisation.
**I am cruel. Lokuge’s characters are not aggressively stereotypical, but they do play to type.