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Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne
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Dec 26, 11

Read in December, 2011

Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne presents a vast project. Its story crosses the globe, beginning in Sri Lanka and ending in Britain. Great events befall its characters, but throughout their lives seem to be writ small against a backdrop of history.

The novel opens with an apt quote from Jack Kerouac – All life is a foreign country. This idea forms substantially more than a theme, in the no matter how secure the book’s characters might appear – and equally however insecure – they never really seem to be at home with themselves.

We meet the Fonsekas in Colombo. They live near the beach in this frenetic city. Alice is a nine-year-old. Her parents, Stanley and Sita are a mixed marriage, Tamil and Sinhalese. Alice’s grandparents, Bee and Kamala, are happily married in their own way. Bee is something of an artist. The grandparent show significant wisdom.

But things are stirring in Sri Lanka. There is a smell of conflict, a hint or war. A mixed marriage is hard to sustain, and its offspring don’t fit into anyone’s interests or desires. Alice grows into a rather isolated child. She has friends, but then she doesn’t. She does well at school, and then she doesn’t. She makes things, shares her grandfather’s artistic bent.

Lives in paradise grow steadily more complicated, apparently less sustainable. Stanley, Alice’s father, decides that his future, and eventually his family’s, lies in Britain. He books a sea passage and an unscheduled stop-over in Greece opens his eyes to ancient cincture and provides other activities that always threatened, but until then never materialised.

In Britain he ekes out an immigrant’s lot, doing whatever he can. When Sita and Alice eventually join him, he has changed and they don’t fit in. They can’t. Perhaps no-one ever does, anywhere. Sita mourns the child she lost to her own destruction as she works from home on her sewing machine. Alice doesn’t get on at school, except with a chain-smoking art teacher. And so life progresses, from one mistake to the next, with an idealised past becoming a new paradise, a place that it perhaps never was. But there is no going back. Conflict has intervened. Lives have been lost and there will be more to follow.

Marriages fail. There are short passionate affairs. There is much imagined longing. Roma Tearne’s story thus meanders through its themes, but without ever concentrating on any particular one to create a lasting impression. The characters seem more confused than reflecting, more victims of events than their instigators. Wherever they are, they remain foreign.
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