Island of a Thousand Mirrors may not be getting the shelf space it deserves in Australia.
Make the effort to seek it out.
This debut novel by Sri Lankan-American writer Nayomi Munaweera is a full sensory experience that takes us way beyond the Paradise Lost cliche.
Told in a first person narrative, the book moves at a cracking pace as the narrator,Yasodhara, takes us back to the story of her grandparents and her parents before she starts weaving her own.
It feels a bit of a whirlwind as the narrator races us from beachside cottage, seaside fishing trips and small schoolhouses into the city and the estate of a colonial judge with extended family and staff.
In both locations, the narrator paints a clear picture of daily life in Sri Lanka - I can almost taste the fried fish rolled into balls, mixed with red rice and coconut sambal, the lush tropical gardens and a young girl's yearning to be left alone to study so she can be a doctor.
The escape from civil war and the making of a new life in America is told in the way of someone who has experienced that desire to disappear, to fit in. The irony is not lost when Yasodhara notices new arrivals from Sri Lanka smell of exotic spices and wear awkward saris. They seem foreign to her, a lifetime away.
It is a flurry of houses - both colonial estates and poor shanties, a building of the tensions between Sinhala and Tamil, the difference between rich and poor and the modern conflicts of making a "love match" or allowing your parents to arrange a marriage. There are questions of education, and of course a civil war that dramatically changes the circumstances for everyone in the book.
This is a story of racial conflict, colonialism, family and above all: love.
All wrapped up in a delicious, scented double-time plot which really forces you to see how suddenly life can take sharp unexpected turns.
The Blurb from Penguin/Viking
Before civil war tears the tapestry of Sri Lanka apart, the lives of two young women from two very different families are fatefully linked by one chance encounter.
In Colombo, Yasodhara lives a full life with her Sinhala family, rich in love and everything she could ask for, though shaped subtly by social hierarchies, her parents' ambitions, and the differences between the Tamil and Sinhala people. All is well until the family's serene existence is shattered by the outbreak of violence.
Saraswathi, a Tamil, is living in the active war zone and dreams of becoming a teacher. But her hopes for the future are trampled when she is arrested by a group of Sinhala soldiers and pulled into the heart of a conflict she has tried desperately to avoid.
A powerful saga that strikes mercilessly at the heart of war, Island of a Thousand Mirrors marks the arrival of a spellbinding new literary talent.
About the Author
Nayomi Munaweera was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Nigeria. She immigrated to the United States in her early teens and now lives in Oakland, California. Island of a Thousand Mirrors won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It is her first novel.
Interview: NPR Books
Review: Publishers Weekly