This is a short but very vivid tale of life and civil war in Sri Lanka. It manages to be historical fiction, family saga and contemporary immigration...moreThis is a short but very vivid tale of life and civil war in Sri Lanka. It manages to be historical fiction, family saga and contemporary immigration story all in one: not bad for 240 pages. But the island of Sri Lanka itself is the real protagonist here, more so than any individual character.
So the book begins with the island, and follows the primary narrator’s family for 60 pages before she’s even born, but it pulled me in with strong writing and fantastic imagery. Most of the rest of the novel follows the primary narrator, Yasodhara, as she grows up on the island, then moves to the U.S. as a teenager with her parents and sister to escape the burgeoning civil war. She grows up, assimilates, and marries, but her life and her sister’s are still inextricably tied to their homeland. Meanwhile, the book spends about 50 pages with the secondary narrator, Saraswathi, a young woman who isn’t lucky enough to escape and who is forced to join the Tamil Tigers.
For such a brief story, this is very well-told: the author uses just the right words, and no more of them than necessary. The writing style is assured and although this is a first novel, the lyricism works without seeming forced. The sensory detail is beautiful and striking throughout. As for the characters, Munaweera does a great job of describing their lives, but their personalities remain a little too nebulous for me to invest much emotion in them, and I found myself most interested in secondary characters like Yasodhara’s aunt Mala and grandmother Sylvia. The author seems more comfortable with Yasodhara’s story of immigration (which resembles her own) than Saraswathi’s story of terrorism; the latter feels underdeveloped and I was never quite convinced by her transition from intelligent teenage girl to killer. Yasodhara’s story, meanwhile, is keenly observed, and feels fresh even though the topic is a common one.
In the end, I would recommend this novel for its vibrancy and its humanity; while to me, at times, it seemed too short, more sensitive readers and those who have read fewer stories of life during wartime will appreciate the reprieve. You won’t come away from this book with a lot of factual information about the war in Sri Lanka, but you will come away with a sense of the humanity and the tragedy on both sides.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.(less)
This is a book you don’t want to read too much about beforehand, lest you spoil the ride. I’ll be vague, but if you enjoy period pieces or literary su...moreThis is a book you don’t want to read too much about beforehand, lest you spoil the ride. I’ll be vague, but if you enjoy period pieces or literary suspense, you might be better off skipping the reviews and just reading it.
The setting is London in 1922, where economic necessity forces Frances Wray and her mother to rent out rooms in their home to a young couple, the eponymous “paying guests” – a term they prefer to “lodgers” to save face in their genteel neighborhood. The arrival of Leonard and Lilian Barber shakes up their lives in unexpected ways, especially for Frances, a 26-year-old former activist who is now caught devoting most of her time to the upkeep of the old house.
Do note that this is a very slow starter: the first half is setup and momentum builds gradually; it took me around 100 pages to get invested. The wait does pay off, however, as the second half is a gripping psychological thriller that kept me up nearly all night. I wouldn't call it fast-paced, any more than the other Waters novels I've read (Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet), because Waters develops her scenes in full lifelike detail, not stinting on any of the subtleties of human interaction. But at the same time, she builds up tension and suspense so expertly that, once the plot gets going, it never feels slow.
Meanwhile, the character development is excellent, and their feelings and relationships ring true throughout. In that sense I actually preferred The Paying Guests to Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet; the latter two are great fun and get off to quicker starts, but each has plot and character moments that I found over-the-top and unconvincing. The Paying Guests is a little quieter, its drama a little more restrained, and its protagonists a little more mature; without sacrificing excitement, it feels entirely realistic. Frances’s reactions consistently had me thinking, “yes, yes, that’s exactly how that would feel,” whether the situation is mundane or extreme, and Frances herself is an intriguing character with more depth than is immediately evident. The secondary characters are also colorful and convincing. I particularly liked the honest, sympathetic - and imaginative - way Waters portrays the effects of the leads' actions on other people, both those close to them and people they'd never heard of. The ripple effect is in full force here.
And it works as a period piece too, with lots of detail and atmosphere. I especially enjoyed the aspect of the book dealing with the criminal justice system; the people involved in it and the sequence of events are realistically drawn (not always the case in novels). And the writing, too, is very good. I am a reader easily annoyed by figurative language – many authors seem to include it more to show off than because it contributes to the story – but even I could not fail to appreciate such fresh and apt turns of phrase. For instance, in a tense moment: “They embraced, two hearts thudding like fists on the opposite sides of a bolted door.”
This book didn’t change my life, and the end seemed a bit of a cop-out, but it is excellent, high-quality entertainment, an intense and savvy psychological thriller that I would not hesitate to recommend (unless you are offended by lesbian sex, in which case this is not the book for you!).
Disclosure: I received a free copy for review through the Amazon Vine Program.(less)