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“The walls of my cell are painted an industrial white, like albumen. They must think the color is soothing. Where I come from it connotes absence, death, unrelenting loneliness.”
In the idyllic hill country of Sri Lanka, a young girl grows up with her loving family; but even in the midst of this paradise, terror lurks in the shadows. When tragedy strikes, she and her mother must seek safety by immigrating to America. There the girl must reinvent herself as an American teenager to survive, with the help of her cousin. Both love and loss fill her life, but even as she assimilates and thrives, the secrets and scars of her past follow her into adulthood. In this new country of freedom, everything she has built begins to crumble around her, and her hold on reality becomes more and more tenuous. When the past and the present collide, she sees no other choice than to commit her unforgivable final act. This is her confession.
Thoughts : What Lies Between Us has been on my radar since I first heard about it a few months ago. It released in the US in February and since then I’ve been waiting patiently for it to release in India which I was sure it would since it is about SriLanka.
Sri Lanka, if you didn’t know, lies south of India and is known mostly to us South Indians for the strife connected with Tamil Eelam. I’ve never known anything else about it except for the fact that holiday pictures look very similar to Pondicherry and that they eat a lot of spicy food. So naturally I was curious about what the people were like and when I got the opportunity to review this, I jumped at it and accepted.
The story begins in a cell where the main character (Unnamed till the very end) talks about how the colour of the cells, painted an industrial white, are not soothing like they are meant to be. Instead, they denote death. Which is what the story is actually about. Death of a lot of things, of loved ones, of memories and of relationships.
It is divided into four parts each denoting a different track that the protagonist’s life has taken. Part one is set in Sri Lanka and is about her childhood, part two is her move to America and how she settles in, part three about her first relationship and part four about motherhood. The main character (MC, I am not saying her name even though you can find it online because it has an effect when the character is left unnamed till the very last page. Let that effect remain.) basically narrated the whole thing in first person making you feel like you’re living her life with her but in a cool and detached manner.
The MCs parents have a complicated relationship, both with her and with each other. Her mother did not come from money but married into it. While that is, in the western world, presented as a dream come true it is presented more realistically here. She has trouble fitting in and has to think about everything she does, every word she says, lest his relatives belittle her.
Slammed doors, screaming, shouting, broken things and the constant smell of arrack (local alcohol) are the norm when there is no one to maintain a front for. This constant stress however only serves to make things more difficult for the MC and she spends every little second of her childhood trying to make sure she makes her mother smile and doesn’t confide in her about any problems she may be having. A rather large undertaking for anyone, let alone a child.
Circumstances however are not on their side, or maybe they are, but they move to America where they have to start a new life and then, things pick up. But we all know that things aren’t going to be easy, especially for a child who grew up with such emotional trauma around her. She meets someone, falls in love with him and then lets her insecurities about her parents’ marriage destroy the relationship completely.
“Everybody knows that happiness in marriage is not expected. It is a possibility, of course, but it is not the reason one gets married. Happiness is hoped for what is never an expected consequence.”
While the ending of part three and the beginning of part four did drag a tiny bit, it wasn’t easy to put the book down. I had my nose in it through the whole day and only kept it aside when I was finished. Munaweera has written the whole book in a deceptively simple style that still manages to communicate to you, the reader, the complexities of whatever is happening around her. We get a sense that while whatever we are being told is correct, there is also something that we aren’t being told.
The stress on motherhood is strong in this read. While the story itself starts with how all the mothers of America are now freed from their small failures as mothers by her humongous one. In Sri Lanka (as I suppose it is in India), being a mother is considered a woman’s ONLY duty. Being a mother not in the western sense, but in birthing as many children as possible and bringing pride to the family by having as many boys as possible. So the fact that her mother could only have one child, a girl, who has failed in every way possible, also is a theme here.
“I have magic skin, when I pierce it, it quivers like a million metal filings rearranged by a magnet. Always this to calm me, to take me away.”
Here, in India (and most countries nearby) psychological problems aren’t real. They’re treated like how one treats a toothpain, “Give it some time and it’ll be fine.” but only, inline a toothpain, you aren’t allowed to tell anyone about it here. But Munaweera tackles them all! From themes of self harm, depression, abuse to how people in Asian countries would rather hide something because they consider it shameful rather than protect the people who are harmed by it. I really enjoyed this read and while enjoy may be the wrong word, the writing certainly was enjoyable. Rich and dark, alluring at times and gut wrenching at others, Munaweera has spun a tale that you won’t forget for a long time.
*I was very kindly sent a review copy by Pan Macmillan India, thoughts are my own.