Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 29, 2016

Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera

Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Island of a Thousand Mirrors has achieved remarkable success for a debut novel.  It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia, was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was long-listed for the Man Asia Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Award.  I think that this was because like many a first novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors deals with an issue that weighs heavy on its author’s heart, and that issue is the futility of war.

I had Sri Lankan friends before the civil war in Sri Lanka, which began in 1983.  They were economic migrants, who spoke nostalgically about the beauty of their home country and its sapphire blue waters.  I listened to these enticing images and added Sri Lanka to my bucket list.  But since the war began Australia has become home for many more people of Sri Lankan origin, and they came as refugees, fleeing the horrors of war.  It is that brutal 25-year war which drives this powerful novel towards its devastating conclusion: when it’s all over, what was it for?

The story is told by two young women, middle-class Yasodhara in Colombo in the south, and Saraswathi, a Tamil in the war-ravaged north.  In childhood, Yasodhara is aware of cultural issues and snobberies about the Tamils, but when her father dies and her mother reluctantly rents out the upper floor of their house to a Tamil family, she forms a friendship with a Tamil boy called Shiva.  In adolescence that friendship blossoms into love, and the novel briefly teeters on the edge of a well-worn Romeo-and-Juliet abyss because arranged marriages were still very much the norm.

But there is authorial purpose behind Yasodhara’s dilemma.  ‘Love marriages’ are seen as risky and there is ‘safety’ in submitting to the choice of older and wiser parents and the auspices of the community’s marriage market.  When her heart is broken, Yasodhara opts for safety to assuage her pain.  The novel’s irony is that her arranged marriage is no more safe than a love-match might have been, and that the notion of safety takes on a whole new meaning when the complacent safety of Colombo is shattered by the emerging civil war.

Reminiscent of a scene in Yulianti Farid’s story ‘Fire’ in her short story collection Family RoomYasodhara’s mother discovers an humanitarian streak that she didn’t know she had, in order to protect the despised Tamil neighbours from Sinhalese bent on violence.  But when that violence affects her family directly, they are able to flee to the US (where the author has some droll observations to make about the contradictions of American life).

Meanwhile in the north, Saraswathi is living a very different kind of life.  Her brothers have already been lost to the war, and all around her community the fear of arrest and violence at the hands of ruthless government troops is matched by fear of sons and daughters being conscripted by the Tamil Tigers.  Saraswathi dreams of becoming the teacher to replace her beloved Miss Rajasingham, Colombo returned, with a university degree.  Saraswathi thinks that there are rules that will give her the freedom to achieve her dreams:

In practice for my Maths paper, Miss sets me complicated equations.  They take a long time to solve, but I love the long columns of numbers, the need to proceed logically and patiently as the numbers lead you to the final and inevitable number.  It reminds me of dancing.  The way my shoulders, the tilt of my arms, and angle of my knees must stay within precise formations, yet also lead where I take them.  A sort of freedom that can be attained only within strict rules.  (p. 142)

There is a cruel and final inevitability about what happens to Saraswathi too, and again Munaweera plays on the ironies.  Where the rigid principles of Yasodhara’s mother enable her to stand up to the violence that threatens her world view, Saraswathi’s mother submits to the demands of the Tamils because she adheres to cultural norms about girls and women.  Having promised always to protect her daughter, in the end Amma would rather abandon her daughter than lose face.  Munaweera is not about to let her readers avoid the conclusion that women’s opportunities for education and careers in Sri Lanka are only a shallow veneer that masks a deep-seated sexism that ruins many lives.

When they think it’s safe, Yasodhara and her sister return to Colombo, to work with children maimed by land mines.  But decades of hatred are not as easily subsumed as triumphant government pronouncements would have us believe, and as has so often been the case in similar conflicts, peacemakers are seen as traitors betraying a cause.  In this novel, both peace and war seem futile.

If Island of a Thousand Mirrors is anything to go by and not a one-hit wonder, then Nayomi Munaweera is an author to keep an eye on.

I am indebted to one of my blogging friends for reminding me about Island of a Thousand Mirrors, which has been on my wishlist since it was longlisted for the Man Asia Prize.  I can’t remember now who this blogger was but will happily link back to the enticing review that prompted me to seek out this novel, if *blush* someone reminds me where it is!

Author: Nayomi Munaweera
Title: Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Publisher: Viking Penguin Australia, 2014
ISBN: 9780670077793
Source: Kingston Library

Availability

Fishpond: Island of a Thousand Mirrors


Responses

  1. […] ANZLitLovers LitbBlog stellt mit Island of a Thousand Mirrors von Nayomi Munaweera einen Debütroman vor, der vor dem Hintergrund des Bürgerkrieges in Sri Lanka spielt. […]

  2. Oh great! Just saw that you’d read and reviewed this, I reviewed her latest book, just out in February, with a gorgeous cover What Lies Between Us which is excellent and you mentioned that you’d discovered you had this earlier novel on your TBR, and wondered where on earth you had put it! So I’ glad you found it and a great review! I got myself a copy of it too, have not yet read it, but with all the accolades, I know its going to be as good as her latest, she is certainly a writer to watch.

  3. […] Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Muneweera […]


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