Island Of A Thousand Mirrors
Penguin Books AUS
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Sri Lanka is in the grip of a brutal civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It is the Sinhali against the Tamil in a bloody conflict that most don’t even understand. All they know is what they are taught, which is that the other side are different to they. The Tamil fight for a free state, their own piece of land and the government seek to quell them.
Yasodhara is a Sinhalese girl living in relative peace with her family in her grandmother’s house. To earn a little money, their grandmother has rented out the upstairs half of her house to a Tamil family and Yasodhara and her younger sister spend days playing with Shiva from upstairs, uncaring that he is Tamil and they are Sinhalese. And then the war comes, ripping the two families apart. Yasodhara, her sister and their parents flee Sri Lanka for America for the opportunity offered in the land of the free. They encounter a lifestyle shock and soon become swept up into the dream of owning their own home. Yasodhara and her sister get accepted into good colleges and their parents eagerly await the day until they can find good Sri Lankan boys for them both.
By contrast, Saraswathi is a Tamil girl, living with her family in a camp during the height of the 1989 conflict. Already their parents have given three brothers to the Tigers’ cause, never to return. Saraswathi is smart and has a good teacher who believes that she can pass her exam when she turns 17 and begin teaching herself. But before this can happen, something horrible happens and Saraswathi becomes the next recruit for the rebel insurgence, caught up in the hatred and desire to prove loyalty to the Leader by making the greatest sacrifice of all.
Two girls who grew up on opposing sides of a war that has changed their very lives, torn apart their families. For one it created opportunity elsewhere, for another it brought only shame and a burning anger and desire for revenge and now their paths are going to cross in the most horrific and heartbreaking of ways.
As I’ve often said, until recently I’ve lived in some sort of bubble where history never penetrated so naturally when I started this book I knew very little of the Sri Lankan civil war that began in 1983 and lasted until 2009. Although this book doesn’t bog the story down with a history, it’s a good place to start because the dual narrative shows both sides of the conflict with no bias. For the first half of the book, Yasodhara tells her life story and that of her parents as well – how her parents came to be married, the childhood of her and her younger sister, their habits and routines, their culture. How she played with a young Tamil boy without even really knowing what that meant. And how her grandmother stood up to the soldiers that came, suspicious that there was a Tamil family. Even though her grandmother had fought with the old Tamil patriarch of the family, she still protected them with ferocity. For the soldiers to have discovered the family residing upstairs would’ve meant their deaths. Not long after this incident, Yasodhara and her family move to America, escaping the conflict.
Then the narrative switches to Saraswathi, a Tamil girl who has had a different upbringing to that of Yasodhara. Saraswathi’s story might just be one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. I can’t even explain how invested I became in her story – she’s a young girl with dreams, she wants to be a teacher. She has a role model that she looks up to but her whole life is shattered one day and she is ‘reborn’ in a way, a completely different person. She joins the Tamil Tigers and becomes a robot killing machine, utterly unmoved about taking lives no matter who they are. She talks of using a machete on a baby with a chilling lack of emotion. She now exists for one reason and one reason only and that is to serve the Leader by killing. And Saraswathi wants the highest honour of all.
Then the narration changes again, switching back and forth between the two as the day inches closer where Yasodhara and Saraswathi will become connected. Although the book revolved around war and discussed horrific things, the point where this narration changes to a back-and-forth style utterly changes the pacing of the book. All of a sudden it becomes almost urgent to keep reading, even though you know what is going to happen, what Saraswathi has signed up for. It is impending disaster that is coming towards you, almost like a runaway train and you can’t really do anything except sit there and keep reading, waiting for the impact. And what an impact.
Island Of A Thousand Mirrors isn’t just a story that hooks you, the writing is simple and stunning:
We drink sweet, fresh coconut water, cool as well water. Afterward, he hacks the coconuts open, fashions small spoons of husk so that we can scoop out the inner flesh, gelatinous as egg white, creamy as ice cream.
Despite the atrocities of the subject matter at times, the whole book is ripe with vivid description of food, garments and locations. It enhances the whole experience of reading, makes it so that it doesn’t matter how little you know. It fills in the gaps on life during this time almost so subtly that you don’t even realise it’s being done.
I’m hesitant in a way to describe this book as beautiful because of the traumatic subject matter and the agony these characters endure but it really is. I’ll be
pushing recommending it to everyone.
Book #189 of 2014