Review copy provided by the publisher.
There are so many ways that a novel about a real and recent civil war can go wrong. It can be partisan, showing the saints of one side and the demons of the other; it can be clinical, with a distance better suited to nonfiction. It can be maudlin and sentimental about the joys of the world before the war. It can devolve into swagger about the toughness and bravery of certain people and elide their suffering. Ganeshananthan is writing about the Sri Lankan Civil War, and she threads the needle perfectly, dodging all of these things to give us a vivid, specific, humane novel of a young woman’s family inside a shattering conflict.
Sashi wants to become a doctor–and this is not a tragedy about how war stole that dream for her, it is a thoughtful and nuanced book about someone who keeps pursuing that dream in the face of great difficulties but not to the exclusion of all other things. She has four brothers and a family friend from their block, a young man she feels a strong connection to, and having those five young men with their varying experiences gives Ganeshananthan a chance to portray a diversity of opinion and experience. Some of the young men are frankly described by the protagonist as terrorists. Others are more acted upon than acting, or carve out places to stand apart from the politics. Both author and protagonist are extremely clear about how oppression and war shape people’s choices with no ideal outcomes, no pure hands, but in a beautifully specific way, so that no one character is The Representative Of This Or That but instead all remain fully portrayed, three-dimensionally human characters.
Does one need to content warn past saying “this is about the Sri Lankan Civil War”? I guess the content warning here is: Ganeshananthan is not interested in giving you a sanitized vision of oppression and civil war. She is not interested in looking away. So there is violence, including sexual violence, and loss and fear and anger and all of the things that a book on this subject needs not to be a travesty of itself. What do you think a book about a modern civil war would have in it, yes, it has that. Done well. But it absolutely does.
I loved this book so much. It made me cry four separate times (Sashi’s grandmother’s reaction to a crucial event, oh God that broke me). It made me look up all sorts of things about Sri Lankan history, not because I needed them to understand the book (Ganeshananthan puts everything you need in the text) but because I wanted to know more. I immediately requested her previous book. It is so good, it is so clear and vivid and strongly written and so very, very good. I have been chattering about this book in most conversations I’ve had this week. I told the nurse at my grandmother’s medical appointment about it. If you get monetary gifts or bookstore gift cards this time of year, by all means consider buying it in the new year. It’s overwhelming and wonderful.