It took me almost a month to read this book. The odd part, for me as a reader at least, was that I didn’t pick up other books during my breaks on this one. Island of a Thousand Mirrors is exceptionally hard to read. Lovers are separated and have to watch the other turn to dust while a child stumbles in the belly of another. Families are held together by a piece of yarn wrapped in tradition and expectations. Culture, to the extent of the Parsley Massacre, is questioned in the burn of tires around ribs. The writing is so heartfelt, that the reader must handle each word one by one.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors is the story of the Sri Lankan Civil War. I knew absolutely nothing about this when I began reading this book. I even looked at the map and had no idea that Sri Lanka had ancient civilization ruins. While my closest relationship to anything Sri Lankan was Nicki Minaj, reading this story made me want to hoard books on the island, and devour Nayomi Munaweera’s perfectly timed new novel.
So, of course, when you’re useless for knowledge, you Wikipedia (like it’s a verb). I learned a lot of statistics about the war, but this book gave the stories of the people and one of the most eye opening moments in literature for me, when I read the inner voice of a Tamil suicide bomber. Civil War short: the island had two deep-seeded cultures Sinhala and Tamil. From what I’ve gathered from reading the book and doing a tidbit of research, the Tamil wanted to create an independent Tamil state (based possibly on Sinhala prejudice) and the leader of this revolution called the fighters, the Tigers. Eventually, after twenty-five years and countless deaths, the Tamil Tigers were defeated by the Sinhala.
I really liked Munaweera’s historical fiction of the Sri Lankan Civil War because it gave me both sides of the argument. I wasn’t tied to either side of the fight because in her painful and deliberate words, I saw the desperate frustration from both cultures. While there are two different family lines portrayed in the novel; one Sinhalese and one Tamil, both families suffered equally. I was drawn more to the Sinhalese because the amount of story behind that family really spoke to me. The Tamil family gave sons and daughters to the war effort and unspeakable atrocities happened to the female members of the family. The Sinhalese family also suffered the loss of family members, and from neighborhood vigilanties no less.
I really, really, really, loved the beginning of this book. The grandmother, who is clearly prejudice, on the Sinhalese size, fiercely protects the Tamil tenants living upstairs that have become almost inner circle to the Sinhalese. She handles threats from the outside world. Not only that, but the family house woman, although she never really speaks, is such a strong character. I find the most poignant writers can make characters that may not have a voice literally on the page, but have such a strong voice in the undoing of the novel.
This particularly grandmother is reminiscint of all strong grandmother figures in the lives of women outside of the US. There’s something uniquely me about attaching to a grandmother figure. I lost my grandmother when I was nineteen, and when I was eleven, she had a stroke that left her a ship anchored at sea with only the sound of “doe” in her mouth. I have spent years trying to write her strength, her southern, her brick shit house onto the page, but it’s proven difficult. My grandmother is almost too much woman for the page and Sylvia Sunethra is that dominant on a page as well. These entire novel is built on female characters made of withered stone. It is demandingly female, but that’s not to say that it is specific to that gender as a reader. This book is true to the spirit of womanhood, no matter the culture, but readable.
I feel like I’m almost doing this novel a disservice because it has been my favorite book in a very long time. I recommend setting a month or two aside to take patience with this book, and kind of pull it apart at both ends. It’s a difficult read and every few pages I had to stop and remind myself to take a breath. The pain on the page can be overwhelming, but the story is worth being pigeonholed into sadness. I found so much mercy for these characters that are from such a different postal code than I am. It’s such an important experience to read books about cultures that remove all of our pretenses and just give us hope and satisfaction. I am emotionally drawn to Sri Lanka now and will forever scour the used bookstore for stories of this island built on history and salt water.