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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: 'On Sal Mal Lane'

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews

By Ru Freeman
Literary fiction
May 2013
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976422

In Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane, several families live on a quiet lane in Columbo in Sri Lanka in the years just before and during the political upheaval, riots and deaths of the early 1980s. One family lacks rancor and is filled with music, sincerity, with hopes and dreams. Anther family is fueled by anger and alcohol, with unspoken yearning.

As these and other families who call Sal Mal Lane home celebrate their holidays, share food and games, and bring each other into their lives, missed opportunities as seemingly trivial as gifts of strawberry milk and chocolate become harbingers of heartbreak.

The world of the quiet street changes with the arrival of the Herath family, which sings together gathered around the piano. The music is an important unifying factor throughout the novel. It draws people to the four children -- oldest son Suren who lives and breathes music, oldest daughter Rashmi who is the perfect child at school, son Nihil who adores cricket but not as much as he adores and worries about protecting the youngest, daughter Devi, a carefree, lively child.

One of the beauties of this novel is that these children are genuinely dear souls. Their mother is a teacher who has naturally high expectations. Their father, a government worker, is akin to a less biting Mr. Bennet who doesn't regret his marriage while hiding behind his newspapers. Their neighbors, the Silvas, consider themselves the top family of the lane. They're stuffy but not overbearing. Their two boys are not allowed to play with the Bolling girls.

The Bollings are an extended disfunctional family of a physically damaged, angry father, a teenage son, Sonna, who is the neighborhood bully and who will break a reader's heart, and two younger unkempt, flighty daughters who are drawn to the Heraths. Their friendship brings into the circle the Bolling children's uncle Raju, a mentally and physically challenged man who remains childlike and who lives with his mother. Raju adores the children, especially Devi. And Devi adores Raju because he is the only grown-up who never tells her what she is supposed to do and not do.

In another house, the Nerath children take piano lessons from Kala Niles, the grown-up daughter who still lives at home. Her mother is one of the homemakers on the lane. Old Mr. Niles and Nihil become fast friends through their love of cricket and books in one of the lovely relationships forged in this novel.

There are sweet friendships among people who often don't have anything to do with each other in other circumstances. The Bolling girls love being with the Heraths, who, instead of being uptight, welcome them into their home. One Silva boy develops a crush on one of the Bolling girls, and they dream of going to Australia one day where their differences won't matter. The Niles family blossoms when the Heraths come with their music.

And then there is Sonna. He's the tough guy of the neighborhood. He is the one everyone fears, because he will attack. It's what he learned from his angry, bitter father who was hurt in a car crash before Sonna's very eyes while trying to go off to carouse with a buddy. But the Herath children cast their spell on him, too. They refuse to see that there is an evil person in Sonna, no matter what cautions the other neighbors give them. The missed opportunities of trying to give presents back and forth are symbols of the missed communication that can heal and strengthen personal relationships when successful, but which are bittersweet when they are not.

Despite the grownups' best efforts, outside political forces come into the lane. There are Tamil and Sinhalese, Hindu and Catholic families, Buddhists and Muslims. Far too many of the people on the lane fear and hate because they feel they are supposed to do so. One family retreats when the troubles come; the family members hurt only themselves.

Homes are attacked and people gather together. The relationships that have been formed don't all hold, but enough of them do to show that even in the face of the world as they know it falling apart, people can still be good to each other and true to themselves. Just as missed opportunities are bittersweet for the children, it leads one to wonder what missed opportunities might have helped the political situation from disintegrating.

In the aftermath, after a haunting chapter in which another street still stands only as ashes that will collapse to the touch and which the only living thing left is not saved, people slowly try to return to the lives they once led. Then tragedy strikes. There is enough foreshadowing early on that it is not hard to tell who something will happen to, but there is such strong storytelling that even knowing does not take away the powerful emotional impact when that something comes.

The personal and the political are woven together so finely in this novel that they do not strain against each other, but bolster the telling of the two aspects of what the Sal Mal Lane neighbors face and feel. Information needed to know why it's important to know who is Sinhalese and who is Tamil is presented clearly and in time to be useful. Freeman is both a journalist and novelist, so she knows how to deliver the small noticings that reveal character, and the sweep of politics that change a country.

©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

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