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On Sal Mal Lane

3.85  ·  Rating details ·  617 ratings  ·  122 reviews
A tender, evocative novel, in the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a quiet street, disturbed only by the cries of the children whose triumphs and tragedies sustain the families that live there. As the neighbors adapt to the new
Hardcover, 376 pages
Published May 14th 2013 by Graywolf Press (first published April 29th 2013)
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3.85  · 
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 ·  617 ratings  ·  122 reviews

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Feb 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
This was a slow book for me--which isn't a bad thing at all--I'm just used to reading faster. Some of my favorite books including English Patient, Possession, Middlesex were slow reads too. I think sometimes it's good for a reader to be forced to slow down a bit.

This one started off slow, as the first part of the book is more character-driven than plot driven. By the last third or so, it's definitely plot-driven and the story moves more rapidly--and this, in my opinion, was the strongest part o
Apr 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
a sweet and bittersweet story. a compelling read about the innocence of youth, with the backdrop of social unrest in Sri Lanka in the early 1980's (and its roots, yet again, in British imperialism) and its impact on those children. the author builds a multi-layered scenario where various families on the street live and navigate their own and their neighbors' ethnic and religious stakes. I was awed by how seemingly simple and innocent passages set the stage for and depicted deeper and dangerous a ...more
Apr 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman is both stunningly beautiful and at the same time deeply sad, but above all takes the reader to places most have not been and this reader knew little about, life leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war. Freeman’s writing is beautiful, almost poetic at times, even with such a heavy topic, the characters will imprint themselves on the reader and Freeman easily transport the reader back in time to Sri Lanka allowing the reader to view life through several well rounded, ...more
Bonnie Brody
Jun 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Sal Mal Lane is a dead end street in the capitol of Sri Lanka. On that street live people of different religions and ethnicities: Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Lansis. So far, on the surface they get along but a storm is brewing in the country and, with authorial intrusion, we know that things, will turn violent with time.

The children of Sal Mal Lane are the focus of this delightful novel. The Heruth children star in this book. There is Rashmi who is perfect in he
Feb 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
This novel is set in Sri Lanka from 1979 to 1983, a time of civil unrest and revolution on this island nation. At the center of Freeman’s tale is the Herath family and their neighbors on a short street, Sal Mal Lane, in the nation’s capitol Colombo. In telling their story, Freeman is able to show on multiple levels the growth of societal dischord in Sri Lanka. Much of the book concerns the children of Sal Mal Lane and their relationships with one another. Their interactions can be distilled into ...more
Stephanie Anze
Apr 01, 2019 rated it liked it
"God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and surely these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell all of us."

3.5 stars

Sal Mal Lane is a cul-de-sac neigbourhood in Sri Lanka. A community of neighbours of varying classes, caste and ethnicities, all appear to live in ha
I'm not nearly as picky about buying books by women of color as I am about nearly every other demographic. Indeed, I believe I paid full bookstore price for this particular copy, purchased alongside The Moor's Account that may have also not even been on my TBR before it found its way onto my physical shelves. It's not as if I've never been disappointed by such whimsical, WOC oriented purchases, but that my past reading is still so woefully lacking in such voices that they deserve all the
Elizabeth K.
May 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Elizabeth by: Book Beast review
Shelves: 2013-new-reads
I remember seeing a very favorable review in the NY Times for this novel, and having a smug moment in which I congratulated myself for being the kind of person who reads world literature, and put this on my reserve list at the library. Then when it actually came, my reaction was more like "Oh. This." It seemed very daunting once it was in hand because I don't know anything about Sri Lanka, and besides, there was a new Patrick Ness coming out, and a new Gentlemen Bastards, so I had THINGS to do.

Bob H
Sep 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is a compelling -- and intimate -- story of neighbors on a small lane in a small town in Sri Lanka. It's a mixed neighborhood with Tamil, Sinhalese Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim and Burgher families living side by side, gossiping, squabbling at times, watching their children interact and grow up. The story runs from 1979 to 1983, as ethnic tensions in the country gradually enmesh them as events move toward ethnic strife, sudden communal violence and civil war.

The book will require the reader's
Lynne Perednia
May 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
In Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane, several families live on a quiet lane in Columbo in Sri Lanka in the years just before and during the political upheaval, riots and deaths of the early 1980s. One family lacks rancor and is filled with music, sincerity, with hopes and dreams. Anther family is fueled by anger and alcohol, with unspoken yearning.

As these and other families who call Sal Mal Lane home celebrate their holidays, share food and games, and bring each other into their lives, missed opport
Christina (Reading Extensively)
On Sal Mal Lane examines the tensions in Sri Lanka in the years leading up to the Civil War (1979-1983) through the lens of the inhabitants of Sal Mal Lane, especially the children. I found that this was a really effective way to tell the story and while there are dark times there are also moments when kids are just being kids and discovering who they are and who they hope to become. I think that helps the book to be more universal in its themes.

The novel has a third person omniscient point of v
Jun 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 c
Feb 26, 2013 rated it liked it
Freeman’s overly ambitious novel set in the early 1980s in Sri Lanka uses a street of diverse families to tell the story of the years leading to the Civil War from the intimate level of the families, from the national level of the country, and a global level informing many of this conflict. When the Mr. and Mrs. Heath and their four children move into lane, their next neighbors takes count on which side this family will fall in with the mixed lot of Sinhalse, Tamils and Burghers already residing ...more
Rayna  (Poindextrix)
Jun 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
This review originally appeared on my blog

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman is a truly beautiful book. It is set in Sri Lanka between the years 1979 and 1983 when there was a great amount of civil unrest and tension among different religious and ethnic communities.

To be entirely honest, I know almost nothing about Sri Lankan history before reading this book and while a stronger grasp might have been beneficial in providing a larger historical context for the story, it was certainly not necessary to
Elizabeth A
Mar 16, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013
I love reading books set in places I visit, and since I am headed to Sri Lanka later this year, this book moved up my TBR pile.

I have briefly visited Sri Lanka before, but do not have a deep understanding of their civil war. This novel is set about four years after the troubles first begin. Sal Mal lane is home to families of different ethnicity, religions, class and political leanings. While they are not holding hands singing kumbaya, everyone knows their place, and for the most part get along.
Aug 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Usually novels either deal front and center with social and political issues or they are completely in the background and barely mentioned. This book manages to interweave national and neighborhood concerns with the individual and family life. Ru Freeman ably tells us what is going on in each character's head without it seeming too far-fetched that the point of view can cover all of the characters in a neighborhood so ably.

There is an innocence in setting the story around mostly pre-teen kids as
Susan (aka Just My Op)
This book about a neighborhood in Sri Lanka, a country edging towards civil war, got off to a great start. The writing was sometimes beautiful. In the prologue, the author writes,

“If at times you detect some subtle preference, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love.”

After that auspicious start, I felt let down. At the beginning of the story, the author includes a map of Sri
Oct 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
On Sal Mal Lane broke my heart. It was unique in that it didn't break my heart when (view spoiler) . It broke it a little from the first paragraph. And continued to fracture it as I got emotionally attached to the characters. That, not having an unexpected tragedy, but a tragedy that we know will happen but not having an option but to watch on as it happens, broke my heart. And made On Sal Mal Lane get into my list of books that kept me up and weeping through the night ...more
Catherine at The Gilmore Guide to Books
Where does one begin with Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane? On the surface it is the story of the Herath family and their lives in their new home on Sal Mal Lane. They are a traditional Sinhalese family, with a mother whose beliefs on what is right and proper leave her children little room to maneuver in their lives. The oldest, Suren, is a gifted musician but is expected to become an engineer as musician is not an acceptable life. Rashmi, the oldest daughter, is the exemplar of Sri Lankan maidenhoo ...more
Apr 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Any Historical Fiction Fan
4.75 stars - I was debating between 4 and 5 stars, but honestly, after a long hiatus of reading (just not getting into the reading mode) - I was able to invest myself and read this almost 400-page book in less than 3 days. And I loved the writing and I loved the character development. On top of all that, it was set in Sri Lanka between 1979 and 1983 and thus, taught me a historical period that I knew nothing of.

Now onward to the real story. This book follows the story of neighbors living on Sal
Sep 25, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Ru Freeman has written a remarkable book, a work both beautiful and heartbreaking. We read newspaper accounts and history books, listen to the radio and watch TV, hear and read the names of cities, towns, politicians, terrorists, and political groups, often unpronounceable to those of us living in Western countries, but Freeman offers us what we never see or hear...the human face, and in this book mostly the faces, thoughts, actions and reactions of innocent children to the gradual disintegratio ...more
May 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
This is an important book set at the beginning of the Sri Lankan Civil War on a street with a diverse set of neighbors- Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers. It's told from the point of view of the "air" and it mostly chronicles the lives of the neighborhood children as they try to make sense of the changes in the world around them. Because it feels like an important book, it's hard to criticize, but I did have one notable criticism which was the lack of deep psychological penetration into the characters ...more
Sep 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I ended up really loving this book. In the beginning I thought it was a bit too detailed - especially in details about the background of the Tamil Tigers, government policies and the civil unrest. At times I felt she did too much foreshadowing of tragedies to come. However I came to love the characters on the lane, especially the children and especially the four Herath children- Suren, Rashmi, Nihil and Devi. Ultimately I thought this was a really important book - the story of how mixed communit ...more
On Sal Mal Lane is a well constructed novel that chronicles the lives of a street of diverse neighbors through the early 1980s in Sri Lanka.

It is also utterly captivating.

The inhabitants of Sal Mal Lane are from all ethnic groups, but how they raise children, how those children relate to their parents, and their enthusiasm about cricket brings them together. There is the aspirational middle class family, the low class family, the family with an adult child who lives at home, and all of the fat
Oct 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written, the author focuses on a street in the outskirts of the capital city of Colombo, Sri Lanka. There are Sinhalese (Buddhist), Tamil (Hindu), Muslim, Burghers (descendants of the Europeans) all living peacefully together on this street. They bring their holiday food to the neighbors and the children all play outside under the Sal Mal Trees. The four children from the Herath family are so close that "There was never a single Herath child in a conversation, there were four; every ...more
Twisty J
Feb 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
The writing is incredibly beautiful prose. The story is heartbreaking and resounding. I really had no idea what to expect when I started reading, and there were times I wanted to stop because my heart was breaking- but there was no putting this one down. Freeman explores politics, ethnicities, religion, and coming of age, within the time of civil war in Sri Lanka, 1979. Without getting muddled, she is able to place the reader in an unfamiliar time and place flawlessly, and the tension is present ...more
Sep 08, 2013 rated it really liked it
Before we’re able to sink into the first page of the first chapter, where the lush scenery, the mesmerizing plot, and the lingering characters lay claim to our psyche, we are informed by the narrator that they are concurrently the air, the road and the composite of our dreams. Unflinchingly, the storyteller tells us that they are ‘everything and nothing.’ And it is from that place that we are intimately drawn into the days, weeks, and years preceding one of the world’s most protracted civil wars ...more
Feb 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013-reads
Going to try and review this book, and not mangle it too badly. Beautiful yes, beyond what I normally read though. I will butcher this book if I go into it too much.

But that being said, I delighted in it! Something different from the norm, but oh so good. A whole world opened to me when I read this book, one I never knew about. That is the joy of reading and this author did a splendid job in doing so. I would totally recommend this book. Not light beach reading but thoroughly enjoyable, if not
Feb 27, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads
This book was a Goodreads Giveaway. I was completely enchanted by this novel. The beautiful writing seemed to me something older, like it came from the nineteenth century, and the way each family along the street was described and followed also felt like an older work of fiction. I struggled a bit at the very beginning to get into it, but once I did I fell in love with the characters and really felt their frustrations and heartbreak. The tension surrounding the impending civil war was built up t ...more
Jun 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
It is a time of civil unrest in Sri Lanka. The story unfolds from the innocence of the children who laugh and play and war together beneath the fragrant Sal Mal trees on Sal Mal Lane...a neighborhood of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and religions...and not without prejudice. The expectation of a tragedy looms large throughout the book and finally breaks your heart. But...beautifully "best summer read" so far.
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Ru Freeman (b. 1967) is a Sri Lankan born writer and activist whose creative and political work has appeared internationally.

She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009), and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press), a NYT Editor’s Choice Book. Both novels have been translated into multiple languages including Italian, French, Turkish, Dutch, and Chinese.

She is e
“Diatonic, he heard the word in his head. Chromatic, pentatonic, hexatonic, heptatonic, octatonic, each iteration of the scale opening innumerable possibilities for harmony. He thought about the Pythagorean major third, the Didymus comma, the way the intervals sound out of tune rather than as though they were different notes. This, he thought, was where his brilliance at mathematics bled into his love of music; music was the realm in which his mathematical brain danced.” 0 likes
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