Saturday, July 6, 2013
On Sal Mal Lane
Graywolf Press, 2013
Source: Received an ARC from Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.
After seeing this book receive such warm praise from Christina T at Reading Extensively, I knew I wanted to check it out. I was terrified though when I opened the book and had trouble focusing. It's told in omniscient third person from the perspective of the street following a huge crowd of people with particular focus on the four children of the Herath family: Suren, Rashmi, Nihil, and beloved youngest Devi.
Once I had a handle on who everyone was, I really enjoyed this story. I loved the huge cast of characters and the way their lives intersected, how the mistreatment of one person led to cruelty of another or the kindness of people unfamiliar with each other brightened the whole place. The book takes place over five years (from 1979-1983) and we get to see a lot of changes in the lives of the people on this lane. It's very rich from the descriptions of colors to the amazing sounding food and I think it will definitely appeal to fans of literary fiction and book clubs.
However, for me there were also a lot of stylistic and writing decisions that made it difficult to become fully immersed. First was the writing. The best way I can describe it is that there are a lot of commas, connecting phrases for longer sentences and it was not a writing style that clicked with me. Second, as mentioned above, there are a lot of characters. I loved that there was a glossary of the slang and such used throughout the book. There is a map showing where each family lived as well as a list of characters; I would have appreciated if that list identified who was Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher, etc. This connects to my third point, which is my almost nonexistent knowledge of Sri Lankan history. I did know vaguely about the Tamil Tigers and I could guess some things about colonialism based on my knowledge of British imperialism in India but a lot of the complexities were over my head. I feel like Freeman may have assumed more familiarity with the history on the part of her audience than I possessed. An author's note with additional references might have been helpful. Obviously these are all pretty particular to me but may apply to others as well.
My big advice would be to brush up on the Sri Lankan Civil War and check out a sample chapter if you're able, to see if you can handle this. It is definitely worth it!