Book Review: «Island of a Thousand Mirrors» by Nayomi Munaweera

“Tropical” by Julia happymiaow is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

Read this before you read the book or the review:

«Bad Atrocity Writing» Bruce Robbin. N+1

Reflections on Well-Used Mirrors

Once again, I am here reviewing a book in a write-up that is only partly a review. Rather, this is an exploration of certain themes present in Munaweera’s novel, particularly around the writing of violence. I will, however, begin with a quick review of my feelings towards the book, before delving deeper into the issue of writing violence.

For those interested in a review of the story, there is a GoodReads here, and a NYTimes article here. If you are wandering what my position is up front, here it is: While I find nothing much to dislike about Munaweera’s debut novel, I think there are better books out there, particularly Elaine Castillo’s «America Is Not the Heart», which.

Primarily, I enjoyed A Thousand Mirrors, even though I felt the tone of the book, that is particularly the narrative voice employed, was somewhat predictable and perhaps overused in post-colonial literature. Written from the “twin outside” of displaced migrants in the U.S. looking backward, we are treated to those familiar moments of astonishment: “what big cars! What large streets!” Followed by mere paragraphs of hard work until her family buys their own house.

Narrative Bindings

The novel’s temporality is difficult to discern—we start with a British officer leaving the island (Sri Lanka), but nothing is mentioned afterwards of any European colonizer, whether good or ill. Then we are given this exegetic introduction:

“My name is Yasodhara Rajisinghe and this is the story of my family. It is also one possible narrative of my island. But we are always interlopers into history, dropped into a story that has been going on far before we are born, and so I must start much earlier than my birth and I must start with the boy who will become my father.” (Munaweera, p.7)

But our narrator is not always with us, and sometimes we are a young Tamil girl, Saraswathi—a young woman on the opposite side of the war from Yasodhara’s family. The effect is, early on, a confusion as to the present story’s location in the narrative chain-of-events. Handled in a slightly different manner, with perhaps a greater degree of individuality lent to the two narrators, I think this would have worked much better.

The effect, perhaps intentionally, was a flattening of the war, where all anger and suffering are equal; a stripping the characters of their agency; and a portrayal of mass violence, murder, and systemic rape, as unavoidable mindlessness. But if violence is always senseless in that it feeds more violence, how can we drum up the energy necessary to stop it—there’s no impetus to take sides, or to investigate why the situation became violent initially.

Too little attention is paid to the macro political climate here. As a modernist novel, the focus on individual interiority is given pride of place over examination of the historical situation (which creates an individuals’ possibilities). However, with that internalization, one must be clear that the reader is either given hints that more exists outside of the narrator’s world, or else the subject must be such common knowledge that the reader may be reasonably expected to bring their own background knowledge to bear.

The average American, alas, would not know much about Sri Lanka—and likely nothing about the complicated landscapes of postcolonial thought, art, and scholarship that the book treads through. The story then becomes, in the minds of many readers, their history of the island. Lacking another story, the two indistinguishable sides and their violence becomes a way to dismiss the conflict entirely.

The tone, which will be instantly familiar—yet still frustratingly difficult to define—to anyone who reads postcolonial novels written in English: what I will call “violent chic.” We get passages dealing with atrocity, yet presented in an always-already anesthetized manner.

“In desperation a mother throws her 1-year-old son out of the burning hut but the boy is caught by the leering mobsters and chopped into pieces and thrown back in and in that precise yet fleeting moment of loss and rage everyone realizes that they would die if their death meant saving a loved one and that they would die if their death meant staying together and that they would die anyway because it would not be as disastrous as living long enough to share this sight.”
—The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy
(quoted in Bruce Robbin’s article from N +1)

It is a tone borne out of the fervent humanist belief we are all capable of getting along. That even the crowd, those who chopped up this one-year old—and the soldiers who raped Saraswathi—are not able to bear all the brunt of the blame for their actions, for their situation, for this atrocity. It is a move that seeks to complicate simple notions of good/bad, an effort to minimize the melodramatic demonization of the Other.

In Thousand Mirrors, we are not notified, for example, of the support the Tamil “insurgents” received from the nuclear-powered India. Nor is there mention of the nation’s long flirtation with the communist powers, as part of the China-led Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), during the global cold war between the U.S. and the USSR, which cooled U.S. attitudes towards the island nation into the new millennium.(Without the USSR to fight, why bother supporting all those little states? Everywhere would soon look America, history had ended.

America provides an escape for Yasodhara, but her position in this world or the last is never fully grappled with. She returns as an American to teach children without legs how to paint in a bout of nostalgic voluntourism, an act itself not necessarily helpful to those being helped. [1]

It’s not a mark against the book, or Munaweera, that these issues are left unaddressed and under-tended. The book is well written, deftly employing to all the best tricks and codes of the US MFA (Elif Batuman on the writing world of the present creative system.) But I just couldn’t help but think, in illustrating a civil war, in becoming the history that readers will be left with regarding this place, that the book ought to provide something to care about—context to develop a perspective on—rather than the plaintive but impossible-to-disagree-with argument that violence solves nothing. Stating that truism over and over like a verbal rosary does nothing to prevent or understand violence.

Perhaps that is too great a task to ask of any author, but it is something we can hope for, and occasionally discover in great writing.

Print Works Consulted:

“Island of a Thousand Mirrors.” Munaweera, Nayomi. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York. 2012. Print.

Rafael, Vicente L. Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid Wars of Translation. Duke University Press: London. 2016. Print.

Robbins, Bruce. Bad Atrocity Writing. N +1, 32: p 12-22. 2018 Fall. Print.

[1]: $500 Million for 6 Red Cross Homes ProPublica
Western Volontourism, TheGuardian
UK Parliament: Sexual Exploitation in Aid Sector, PDF