Hmm I’m just looking over the number of books I read while in Sri Lanka – the combination of a beach break and pure hiding-out in books after a scare. Books save me – they are the instant invisibility cloak! Maybe it’s flawed thinking (of the “if I can’t see them, they can’t see me” school of avoidance) but it works for me. Of all the books though, the one I feel is a Sri Lankan “must-read” is The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai – brilliant!
Sri Lanka – January 2014
The Roll Call:
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 4/5. I really enjoyed this.
Editor’s Blurb: In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy boards a huge liner bound for England – a ‘castle that was to cross the sea’. At mealtimes, he is placed at the lowly ‘Cat’s Table’ with an eccentric group of grown-ups and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys become involved in the worlds and stories of the adults around them, tumbling from one adventure and delicious discovery to another, ‘bursting all over the place like freed mercury’. And at night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner – his crime and fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever.
Published August 30th 2011 by McLelland
The Gold Finch by Donna Tartt
My rating: 3/5. I started off loving this book,the characters, the writing style – then Las Vegas appeared and the story disintegrated.
Editor’s Blurb: A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and determined to avoid being taken in by the city as an orphan, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and on the city streets. He becomes entranced by the one thing that reminds him of his mother, a small, mysteriously captivating painting that soon draws Theo into the art underworld.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
My rating: 4/5. Very sweet.
Editor’s Blurb: An elderly artist and her six-year-old grand-daughter while a way a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas.
Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults. This new edition sees the return of a European literary gem – fresh, authentic and deeply humane.
Published 2003 by Sort of Books
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 3/5. Beautifully constructed and I felt that I should have loved it but it was curiously flat.
Editor’s Blurb: It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.
Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bus, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner.
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
My rating: 2/5. Not nearly as good as The Hungry Ghosts
Editor’s Blurb: “A marvelous first novel, about growing up gay in Sri Lanka…from a brilliant new writer whose next book cannot arrive here quickly enough” (Kirkus Reviews).
Published June 19th 1997 by Mariner Books
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 2/5
Editor’s Blurb: Anil’s Ghost transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition, now forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war. Into this maelstrom steps Anil Tissera, a young woman born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, who returns to her homeland as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. What follows is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past–a story propelled by a riveting mystery. Unfolding against the deeply evocative background of Sri Lanka’s landscape and ancient civilization, Anil’s Ghost is a literary spellbinder–Michael Ondaatje’s most powerful novel yet.
Published April 24th 2001 by Vintage
The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai
My rating: 5/5. I adored this book!
Editor’s Blurb: In Buddhist myth, the dead may be reborn as “hungry ghosts”—spirits with stomach so large they can never be full—if they have desired too much during their lives. It is the duty of the living relatives to free those doomed to this fate by doing kind deeds and creating good karma. In Shyam Selvadurai’s sweeping new novel, his first in more than a decade, he creates an unforgettable ghost, a powerful Sri Lankan matriarch whose wily ways, insatiable longing for land, houses, money and control, and tragic blindness to the human needs of those around her parallels the volatile political situation of her war-torn country.
The novel centres around Shivan Rassiah, the beloved grandson, who is of mixed Tamil and Sinhalese lineage, and who also—to his grandmother’s dismay—grows from beautiful boy to striking gay man. As the novel opens in the present day, Shivan, now living in Canada, is preparing to travel back to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to rescue his elderly and ailing grandmother, to remove her from the home—now fallen into disrepair—that is her pride, and bring her to Toronto to live our her final days. But throughout the night and into the early morning hours of his departure, Shivan grapples with his own insatiable hunger and is haunted by unrelenting ghosts of his own creation.
The Hungry Ghosts is a beautifully written, dazzling story of family, wealth and the long reach of the past. It shows how racial, political and sexual differences can tear apart both a country and the human heart—not just once, but many times, until the ghosts are fed and freed.
Published April 2nd 2013 by Doubleday Canada
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
My rating: 3/5. Beautiful writing but I felt that the subject matter was too intimate and disjointed to work for an outside reader.
Editor’s Blurb: In the late 1970s Michael Ondaatje returned to his native island of Sri Lanka. REcording his journey through the druglike heat and intoxicating fragrances of that “pendant off the ear of India,” Ondaatje simultaneously retraces the baroque mythology of his Dutch-Ceylonese family. It is a story of broken engagements and drunken suicide attempts, of parties where exquisitely dressed couples tango in the jungle, a tale whose actors pursue lives of Baudelairean excess with impeccable decorum. Lyrical and witty, tragic and deliciously romantic, Running in the Family is an inspired marriage of travel narrative and family memoir by one of our most eloquent and poetic writers.
Published November 30th 1993 by Vintage
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 2/5. After The Secret Life of Bees, this was a huge disappointment! I read this during the plane trip and it managed to bore me senseless.
Editor’s Blub: Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.
Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.
Published January 7th 2014 by Viking Adult
The ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5/5. I read this during the plane trip and adored every minute of it.
Editor’s Blurb: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Laneis told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.
Published June 18th 2013 by William Morrow Books