Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
By Nayomi Munaweera
Published: September 2, 2014

Before violence tore apart the tapestry of Sri Lanka and turned its pristine beaches red, there were two families. Yasodhara tells the story of her own Sinhala family, rich in love, with everything they could ask for. As a child in idyllic Colombo, Yasodhara’s and her siblings’ lives are shaped by social hierarchies, their parents’ ambitions, teenage love and, subtly, the differences between Tamil and Sinhala people; but the peace is shattered by the tragedies of war. Yasodhara’s family escapes to Los Angeles. But Yasodhara’s life has already become intertwined with a young Tamil girl’s…

Saraswathi is living in the active war zone of Sri Lanka, and hopes to become a teacher. But her dreams for the future are abruptly stamped out when she is arrested by a group of Sinhala soldiers and pulled into the very heart of the conflict that she has tried so hard to avoid – a conflict that, eventually, will connect her and Yasodhara in unexpected ways.
Nayomi Munaweera's Island of a Thousand Mirrors is an emotionally resonant saga of cultural heritage, heartbreaking conflict and deep family bonds. Narrated in two unforgettably authentic voices and spanning the entirety of the decades-long civil war, it offers an unparalleled portrait of a beautiful land during its most difficult moment by a spellbinding new literary talent who promises tremendous things to come.

My review:

I was eager to read this book because like Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane, it is fiction about Sri Lanka set during the war years.  While Freeman's book focused on the lives of children in one neighborhood of Colombo, Nayomi Munaweera's story narrated from the viewpoint of two young women, one Sinhalese and one Tamil. The book starts out with Yasodhara describing her father and mother's childhood and how they met but the narrative really looks at the lives of women in Sri Lanka. It is not Yasodhara's dad Nishan who sticks with readers but his sister Mala, his mother Beatrice Muriel, and his formidable mother-in-law Sylvia Sunethra. These characters all fade to the background however when we finally get to read about Yasodhara and Saraswathi.

Yasodhara and her younger sister Lanka grow up in Colombo, surrounded by family and even make friends with a Tamil boy who lives upstairs but that friendship and childhood end abruptly when her family flees to the United States for safety. There she faces the challenge of fitting in and adjusting to a different world. It isn't until she is a grown woman that she is pulled back to the island by Lanka and life circumstances. 

It is Saraswathi's story that truly haunted me and while so much of the book is told from the perspective of Sinhalese people, her chapters just have such an impact. Saraswathi experiences extreme suffering that leads her to make difficult choices.  It is heartbreaking to think of what could have been if the war hadn't happened. I am glad the author chose to write from her viewpoint too even though it was hard to read about. 

Nayomi Munaweera has a way with words and I felt pulled into the story from the beginning. I couldn't help but feel for Yasodhara and especially Saraswathi. I appreciated that this book was a thoughtful look at the way war affected the trajectory of two lives as well as the commonality between people. I think this would be a great followup for readers who've read On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman and a good pick for fans of Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Thrity Umrigar and Lisa See.

There is one scene towards the very end that I could really relate to when two of the characters find out that the war has ended. I remember that moment when I saw it on the Internet just like they did and called my parents over to look at the news reports and that feeling of happiness and relief. I grew up in the States feeling apart from the war and my parents kept my sister and I in the dark about it when we were little. It was only when we were a little older that we learned about what was going on and not till I was an adult did I realize that there were race issues going on even when my parents were still living there (they immigrated to the U.S. in the 70's). I was not yet 5 when the war started and 30 years old when it ended. It is sobering to think that for one generation war is all they've known most of their lives. Needless to say this book resonated with me on a personal level but I think readers of any nationality could appreciate it. I would strongly recommend it to book groups too. 

Note: I received an ARC for review purposes courtesy of the publisher and Netgalley


  1. This book sounds like something I would love! Thanks for the great review.

  2. A beautifully written review Christina, you've conveyed the emotion of the story ... I just have to add it to my wishlist!

  3. This sounds like an important book to read. I'll add it to my TBR!

    Lovely review, Christina!


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