Photo caption: Ru Freeman. “On Sal Mal Lane.” Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2013. 386 pages
Shyam Selvadurai, A. Sivanandan, Michael Ondaatje, V.V.Ganeshanandan: these Sri Lankan writers have all written novels about the turbulent political years since 1956 when the island nation was torn apart by ethnic politics and was devastated by civil war and genocide. For this reviewer, growing up in Tamil Nadu, a state in Southern India, this civil war’s narrative unfolded primarily from the perspective of Tamil refugees who arrived in India having lost their homes, their families and their property. Many more Tamils fled to North America and Australia and waged a proxy war from distant shores. Needless to say, the story of the Sri Lankan civil war is long, complex and difficult to unpack.
Ru Freeman’s second novel “On Sal Mal Lane” is a moving and lyrical narrative that is told primarily from the perspective of children who live in a mostly middle-class street in Colombo. While the primary focus is on the Herath family and their four precocious, sensitive children, the novel really pulls together an ensemble cast across class lines with representation from Tamil, Sinhala, Burgher, Buddhist and Christian to create a microcosm of Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s. The novel begins when the Heraths move into Sal Mal Lane and bring to it elegance and grace and an ability to negotiate cultural and ethnic boundaries. Their playfulness, their musicality and their generosity of spirit allows people to come together and to become neighbors. They celebrate different holidays, play cricket, climb trees and sing together. This idyllic childhood begins to crack as the children learn about political happenings in their country such as rigged elections, constitutional changes and localized rioting. When the riots turn into war on the streets of Colombo, the tragedy hits home on Sal Mal Lane. While the neighbors protect one another and cower from the looters in the Herath home, they can do little to protect their youngest child Devi. Devi’s tragic end — while a mere traffic accident on the surface — is also a result of the psychic damage caused by civil war.
Freeman’s characters are memorable. From the deformed weightlifting Raju to Suren, Rashmi, Nihil, Devi, Mr. Niles and the Bolling children, every character is distinctly developed and leaps off the page to capture the reader’s imagination. By the time a reader is through the first fifty pages of the novel, he or she will be deeply invested in the everyday life, struggles and aspirations of the characters. The shadow of loss and grief hovers over every page of this narrative, and we mourn with Freeman for the loss of childhood, the loss of life and the loss of a nation.
Ru Freeman reads on June 6 at Elliott Bay Book Company starting at 7 p.m. Learn more at http://www.elliottbaybook.com/node/events/jun13/freeman.