|Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
|St. Martin’s Press, 2014
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, has received rave reviews since its initial release in Sri Lanka back in 2012. It’s been published in the United States less than a year, and already its prestige is noted by award-winning authors internationally, as well as stateside critics from Publisher’s Weekly. It won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and short-listed for the 2013 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. NoViolet Bulawayo, the award-winning author of We Need New Names, said the novel was “…tender, beautiful, and devastating,” a statement I can defend effortlessly.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a fictional work depicting the very real Sri Lankan civil war, which only ended back in 2009. Munaweera’s novel was timely, and provided an intimate look at life in Sri Lanka during this conflict. It focuses on the lives of two young women and their families—Yasodhara, from a Sinhala family, and Saraswathi, from a Tamil family. Two people on the opposite sides of the war, their lives separate and yet connected. Munaweera’s narrative ties them together through tragedy, and shows with fatal accuracy how far-reaching and devastating the consequences of war can be.
Long before the war, Yasodhara tells us of a beautiful island. She describes “beaches [her father] does not know are pristine,” and “an ocean unpolluted by the gasoline-powered tourist boats of the future.” She talks of mango trees, avocados and condensed milk, and the back room where the children gathered and grew up. Munaweera’s prose is poetic, “tender [and] beautiful,” as Bulawayo said; it mimics the intimacy of a memoir beautifully:
I am ten and Shiva is at my window, holding an unlit kerosene lamp. “You won’t believe what I’ve found!” he whispers. When I climb out, he pulls me along the side of the house, pushes aside jasmine vines to reveal a dark crevice… I am suddenly blinded, claustrophobia clawing at my throat when he fires up the lamp, and blue walls spring up around us. Such color! Cerulean, turquoise, flashes of emerald, like being swept underwater.
Saraswathi’s tale is not much different. In fact, the lives of the two girls—their families, their dreams, their innocent perspectives on the brewing chaos around them—are almost indistinguishable from one another. Yasodhara, like Saraswathi, is drawn to books and learning. Both are expected to marry well and reproduce, and both have dreams apart from that expectation. And both watch as their home falls apart.
Yasodhara, on the Sinhala side of the conflict, is afforded with the opportunity to flee to America with her sister, Lanka. Saraswathi, on the Tamil side, is not as fortunate. Munaweera tears these women apart, but in completely different ways. Neither is left unscarred by the war, despite the differing paths they take. While Yasodhara is literally torn from her family and place of her birth, Saraswathi’s body is torn apart by soldiers, an event which divides her from her family. Yasodhara enters a loveless, arranged marriage, and Saraswathi enters boot camp to become a Tamil Tiger, a mercenary. Up until this point in the novel, Munaweera does an excellent job keeping the two voices in equal proportion. As Saraswathi slowly slips into madness behind the lines of war; however, readers lose her voice. Her sections become shorter and shorter, like clipped thoughts. This reader wonders why Munaweera would choose to silence Saraswathi in this way, just as she is approaching the end of her life. I wanted to see the terror she had previously experienced as a victim and how that informed her new role as the oppressor. Instead, these sections are mere blips; we see what happens to her, but do not fully experience Saraswathi’s shift from fear, to anger, to total brainwashing and devotion. This change happens very quickly, despite the resilience Saraswathi exhibited earlier in the novel. She says, “I am fearless. I am free. Now, I am the predator,” and suddenly she is murdering people without thought, wishing to take her sister away to become a soldier, and all the while expressing nothing of the woman we grew to know throughout the novel prior. By chapter 11, Saraswathi’s voice is cut to mere sentences beside pages of narrative from Yasodhara; the two are no longer equal, and I am perplexed by Munaweera’s decision to do this.
Indeed, the novel is devastating. As it comes to a close and we see Saraswathi blown apart and Yasodhara’s sister lost in the blast, it is clear that not one soul is left untouched by the war that ravaged the island. The novel’s poetry wears chaos well, and departs to us a haunting experience from a time not soon to be forgotten.