Saturday, July 6, 2013

On Sal Mal Lane

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman
3.5/5 stars
Graywolf Press, 2013
385 pages
Adult Historical

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!


  1. I can imagine the confusion when you do not know who or what everyone is. This is a new one for me and being Sri Lankan myself I would enjoy reading about it. Thanks for the post.

    1. I hope you do decide to check this out Mystica! I bet you would really enjoy it.

  2. I know nothing about Sri Lankan so I might have to do some research. Kind of reminds me of Les Miserables, when I bought that, the last at the bookstore was like "make sure you brush up on your facts before you read this." I have a feeling the ... unique writing style would not be for me. I prefer simple and straightforward. Thanks for stopping by my blog! :)

    1. I haven't read Les Mis but it might be exactly like that. The writing style was just not to my taste but I'm sure others will appreciate it.

  3. I do wish that the author had included more background information and that she had identified which families were Sinhalese, Tamil, etc. more clearly (I mentioned that in my review too!). I noticed that professional reviewers were confused by it too.

    I also think the style gets in the way of the story at times too. The idea to write in third person omniscient with all that foreshadowing "look out, something bad is going to happen to this character!" could be annoying at times.

    I am glad you decided to give the book a try. I think I was at an advantage going into it because of my family heritage so it was interesting to get your perspective on reading it. My book group will be reading it next month and I'm anxious to see what they think of it too.

    1. The foreshadowing was so obvious! I kept thinking, surely that's not going to happen because it's so obvious but then it did. I think this will be a great book club book (I actually recommended it a friend who likes HF and is in a book club so maybe they'll check it out.) I'm really glad I gave it a shot-thanks for the rec!


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