Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 18, 2018

The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam #BookReview

It took a while for me to recover after coming to the devastating end of this extraordinary short novel.  I knew what was coming – it is called The Story of a Brief Marriage after all – and from the very first pages when Dinesh, a Sri Lankan evacuee during the Sri Lankan civil war, moves across a blasted landscape with a gravely injured child in his arms, I knew this story could not end well.  But it is so exquisitely crafted, and the character of Dinesh so powerfully wrought, that the reader comes to share his tentative hopes.

Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and winner of the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, The Story of a Brief Marriage is Anuk Arudpragasam’s first novel.  It tells the story of how Dinesh, over the course of a day and a night, moves from a state of numb acceptance of having lost everything, to a hesitant awakening.  The story begins in a refugee camp, one of many which has formed as the civilians try to flee being caught between government forces and what is always referred to as ‘the movement’, which I take to mean the Tamil Tigers.  As the conflict draws in, the refugees are crushed towards the coast, and although Dinesh seems not much more than a boy, there is a constant risk that – if he isn’t killed by the shelling – as an able-bodied male he will  be captured and enlisted to fight for the movement.

‘Able-bodied’ is a relative term.  He has not slept for days, and he has not eaten.  He shed no tears when his mother was killed. But he is strong enough in body to help with bringing the injured to what little help is available.  This is the confronting first paragraph, indicative of pages that made me put the book aside sometimes, to walk outside in the garden to hear the carefree laughter of the children next door:

Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm.  Shrapnel had dissolved his hand and forearm into a soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others, and charred everywhere else.  Three of the fingers had been fully detached, where they were now it was impossible to tell, and the two remaining still, the index finger and thumb, were dangling from the hand by very slender threads.  They swayed uncertainly in the air, tapping each other quietly, till arriving at last in the operating area Dinesh knelt to the ground, and laid the boy out carefully on an empty tarpaulin.  His chest, it seemed, was hardly moving.  His eyes were closed, and his face was calm, unknowing.  That he was not in the best of conditions there could be no doubt, but all that mattered for the time being was that the boy was safe.  Soon the doctor would arrive and the operation would be done, and in no time at all the arm would be as nicely healed as the already amputated thigh.  (p.1)

(I could not read this book at night at all. I read Rod Usher’s light-hearted Poor Man’s Wealth instead.  More about that later).

It is in this calm, detached tone, that Arudpragasam relates a story that most of us cannot possibly imagine, even though we see images from war zones on our TV screens all the time.   As the shelling of the camp continues, an old man approaches Dinesh, asking if he will consent to marry his daughter Ganga.  Because the story is always narrated by an apparently indifferent narrator but from Dinesh’s traumatised perspective, the reader can only try to comprehend the reasons for this strange offer from this unemotional, weirdly detached ‘logic’:

Whatever she and her father were in disagreement about, Ganga was right that getting married would make no great difference to her safety.  The two of them could always just pretend to be married if it made a difference to how the soldiers treated her, and the chances were good that they would do with her what they wanted in any case, regardless of her marital status.  Why Mr Somasundaram was so anxious for them to get married, then, if this was how things stood, was a little difficult to say.  It was possible naturally that he just wanted to see his daughter married before he died, so he could know she wouldn’t be left alone if he didn’t survive, but this was implausible too since getting married now, he must have known, would more likely hurt Ganga’s prospects than help.  Most probably they would both be killed before the fighting was finished, but on the off chance that she survived while he died she would be forced to live out the rest of her life a widow, whereas if she stayed unmarried there was a chance at least that she could find a husband by herself later on. Getting married was not necessarily in Ganga’s best interests, therefore, and if Mr Somasundaram wanted her married it could not have been for her sake but his own.  Probably it was something he wanted only so he could be free from responsibility for the last member of his family, so that no longer being responsible for anyone, he’d be able to dwell on his shame alone at last and in peace.  (p. 45-6)

Mr Somasundaram’s shame is that he failed in his duty to keep his family safe.  The power of this novella is that it is that calm dispassionate narrator’s logic which makes it so compassionate. When we read that Mr Somasundaram should not be absolved from guilt even in the circumstances of a world that had been unfair to him because it had removed all possibility of him being able to fulfil the responsibility he had undertaken, we refuse to accept this ‘logic’.   It sounds like a heartless politician or a complacent armchair philosopher.  We reject it.

Dinesh marries Ganga in a simple transaction devoid of all ceremony save the tying of her mother’s thaali around Ganga’s neck, and then begins the bittersweet story of Dinesh’s tentative steps towards looking after her and getting to know her.  He thinks it might perhaps be possible to make love before they die, but moments of respectful tenderness leads instead to unexpected release of a different kind.  As the pages creep towards the end of this short novel of only 193 page, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Colm Tóibín calls The Story of a Brief Marriage ‘one of the best books I have read in years’, and so do I.

Author: Anuk Arudpragasam
Title: The Story of a Brief Marriage
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 2016
ISBN: 9781250075277
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $17.98

Available from Fishpond: The Story of a Brief Marriage

 


Responses

  1. I recall reading about this novel prior to publication and thinking it sounded like a potentially moving read, and it’s stayed with me, even though I think yours is the first review I’ve seen of it. It sounds tough, it is, well done for persevering. I hope I come across it even though I know the subject matter will be hard to process.

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    • Hi Claire, thanks for dropping by:)
      This is one of those books (like many Holocaust books) that make you question why you are reading it, but the rewards are definitely there…

      Like

  2. A powerful review, I am sure I would be so moved too should I read it. :-)

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  3. Happy New Year, Lisa. :-)

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  4. a fascinating review Lisa,
    sometimes although the book is short in number of pages the subjects the novel talks about are heavy that you sometimes stop reading the book

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    • Yes indeed, you are right. This one certainly has a powerful impact.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your mention of ‘recovering’ from the ending is enough to convince me to add this book to my list. I recently finished Georgia Blain’s The Museum of Words and she says “I will love a book forever if the final pages mark my subconscious” – interesting because very often I don’t remember the ending of a book (even shortly after finishing it!), rather I recall the overall feel of the writing and the qualities of the characters. That said, there are a few books where the ending absolutely stands out, eclipsing all else that I recall about the book (a good example is the Liam Pieper book, The Toymaker – I know you weren’t a huge fan and, for the most part, nor was I but the ending is still something I think about!).

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    • I definitely think this one will “mark my subconscious”. The Christmas before last when my father was alive, a Sri Lankan church group put on a carol singing session at his aged care home. It is one of my fondest memories because he loved it so, joining in and requesting Jingle Bells (which they didn’t know but soon found it on their phones and away we went!) . Their leader started out by saying that this was their way of giving back to Australia for giving them a safe home, and now I feel that I understand at an emotional level more of what those lovely people had experienced.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] the library.  It turned out to be just the perfect book to read to offset the bleakness of The Story of a Brief Marriage and my only hesitation in recommending it is that you may have difficulty finding a […]

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  7. I love the cover, but it seems to belie the content rather. The writing is impressive, and I do like the sound of the tone. But there’s probably little chance I’ll read it.

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    • I think the cover is meant to show something about how the civilians were squeezed in by both sides…

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  8. Mmm sounds like one I’d enjoy Lisa

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    • I think it’s a very important book, Stu. There are not enough books about civilians caught up in war. I’ve read a few about being under Occupation (e.g. Between Enemies, by Andrea Molesini) but that’s not the same as being under bombardment.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Whenever I read wars described by people who have experienced them I wonder how our politicians can ever send our young men to join in, or electors allow them to. But more immediately, I wonder how many Dinesh’s are on Manus Is, forever in limbo.

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  10. You might be interested in a 1999 film: The Terrorist.
    This sounds good but but dire. Definitely not a calming bedtime read.

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  11. […] Anuk Arudpragasam: The Story of a Brief Marriage (Granta Books, UK) (Update: this was the winner, and I ordered it, and it is magnificent.  See my review). […]

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  12. […] more.  Last year’s winner (The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam was superb (see my review).  Stu at Winston’s Dad is aiming to review the four translations on the […]

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