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Island of a Thousand Mirrors

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A stunning literary debut of two young women on opposing sides of the devastating Sri Lankan Civil War—winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize

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 the Tamil and Sinhala people—but this 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…

Saraswathie 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.

In the tradition of Michael Ondatjee's Anil's Ghost and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, 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.

242 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2012

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About the author

Nayomi Munaweera

7 books354 followers
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirror was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and was short-listed for the Northern California Book Award. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Munaweera’s… lyrical debut novel [is] worthy of shelving alongside her countryman Michael Ondaatje or her fellow writer of the multigenerational immigrant experience, Jhumpa Lahiri.” The New York Times Book review called the novel, “incandescent.”

Nayomi’s second novel, What Lies Between Us will be released in February 2016 and has been receiving early accolades as one of 2016’s most anticipated books.

More at www.nayomimunaweera.com

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 700 reviews
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
465 reviews1,276 followers
February 14, 2016
I was lulled by this narrative and its powerfully descriptive writing. The thousand mirrors are the school of silver fish that inhabit the coral surrounding Sri Lanka. They appear to be shards of mirrors as they come together in a frenzy then frantically break apart as they swim out to sea.

I catch my breath as I see the beauty of this island -the vivid colours, the tastes, the sounds, until I am shocked out of my stupor with the violence that turns this ravishingly lush land red with rage and blood, as the civil war erupts between Tamil and Sinhala cultures.

This is a story of two families who are struggling to survive in this oppressive war that took place in the 1980's. One family who escapes and is tortured with the reminders of home; the other who remains and is forced to live the torture from within it.

Exquisite writing and Munaweera's debut novel, this story is as beautiful as it is painful and will break your heart into a thousand pieces. 5★
Profile Image for Candi.
598 reviews4,533 followers
July 28, 2016
"Sometimes I get this breathless feeling that the war is a living creature, something huge, with a pointed tongue and wicked claws. When the tanks rumble past in the far fields, I feel it breathe; when the air strikes start and the blood flows, I feel it lick its lips."

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is an intense and vivid portrait of a piece of Sri Lankan history that I was relatively unfamiliar with before reading this. A remarkable debut by Nayomi Munaweera, this novel is beautifully written, juxtaposing the stunning landscape of this island country with its ravaging horrors of a civil war. The imagery is remarkable. As a reader, I could easily envision the bright colors, the sounds and the mouth-watering market smells of the island. I was then jolted into the shocking scenes of brutality and often graphic violence of the war.

The story is narrated by two daughters, Yasodhara the Sinhalese and Saraswathi the Tamil. We quickly learn that the two ethnic groups clash, ultimately leading to war. But before this happens, we learn a lot about Yasodhara Rajasinghe and her parents and grandparents. We glimpse forbidden love and perhaps squirm at the custom and sorrow of arranged marriages. We meet Shiva, the Tamil boy that lives upstairs from the Rajasinghes; his family lives in fear as the conflict between groups escalates outside the safety of the four walls of their home. Yasodhara’s family will opt to leave their homeland and escape to America where they must try to fit in. The author’s portrayal of their efforts to understand and assimilate into the American culture is well done – often moving and sometimes quite humorous. On their first visit to the supermarket, Yasodhara proclaims "At the supermarket what riches greet our eyes! What mounds of dew-dripping, perfectly formed vegetables… Mountains of tangerines, sparkling red onions, bloodless meat. We had not imagined such munificence was possible, that there were so many ways one could clean a countertop, so many specialized ways of wiping an ass." Ha! How true is that?! But Yasodhara and her sister, Lanka, or La, are not satisfied with life in America and will eventually return to their home to help those left stranded and orphaned by the war.

Much later in the book we hear the voice of Saraswathi. I wish her section was not started so late in the book. She has grown up in a war zone and knows no other life but that of soldiers, barbed wire, and young men that never return to their families. She has a dream to become a teacher and sustains herself with this hope for her future. A crushing cascade of events due to the brutalities of this war will cause her life to intersect with that of the Rajasinghe family. Two families unknown to one another will forever be linked.

This truly was a powerful story about the senselessness of war. It was often heartbreaking, sometimes graphic in its depictions of struggle and bloodshed. At the same time, it is an honest portrayal of both sides of a conflict such as this. We come to see the misunderstandings, the reactions to unthinkable deeds, and the hurt that propagates the act of destroying our fellow human beings. It’s not all hopeless though – life does go on and simple wonders can provide happiness and salvation. I highly recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction and lush writing. My only complaint other than the late introduction of Saraswathi is that I had a little difficulty keeping track of Yasodhara’s family. There were several relatives that came and went in the earlier part of the story and not being familiar with the names, I had to remind myself who was who. Fortunately, a family tree is provided at the beginning of my hard copy, so I was able to frequently flip there to refresh my memory. 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,686 reviews14k followers
September 18, 2014
Some books, just by the nature of the subject and content are so incredibly hard to read. This was one such book. Portraying two families, caught up in the violence of Sri Lanka, one family leaves and goes to the United States, one family stays in what they consider their home.

Did not know very much about this subject before I started reading this book, but now know much more. That doesn't mean I understand it, I don;t think I will ever understand how one group of people can decide they are better than another, but it just keeps happening. The first part of the book is used to acquaint the reader with the beginning tensions in the country and to let the reader forge a personal relationship with some of the characters. The bewilderment of the family in the United States, their first glimpses of America and of course the culture shock and the struggle to fit in is brilliantly related. I really enjoyed that part and it rang so true.

The second part shows the full horror of the Tamil Tigers, the abuses perpetuated by both sides and shows the violence against women, the hard cost to families and the deaths and cruelty of many. A very well written book about a hard subject. I applaud the authors unbiased writing and that she took the time to show the reader the full cost of these hostilities on regular families just trying to live normal lives. Bravo.

ARC from NetGalley.
Profile Image for Angela M (On a little break).
1,270 reviews2,217 followers
June 3, 2014
I knew pretty much nothing about the civil war in Sri Lanka before I read this novel. About half way through, I stopped reading to learn more so I could better understand this story. I learned that this war lasted over 25 years from 1983 – 2009 and that 80,000 – 100,000 people were killed. What those articles didn’t tell is the story of how this war impacted the people's lives. This book, however, beautifully tells the heart wrenching story of what the Sri Lankan people endured during this civil war.

It’s about the people from both sides of that struggle and how it took their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and scarred their lives forever. It really is mind boggling that this small volume holds so much. Yes, it is mainly about the war but it is about the culture, about marriages - arranged marriages and love marriages, about the caste system and prejudices over skin color and about the immigrant experience, about familial love and childhood friendships.

There are two narratives. Yasodhara, a Sinhalese, tells the story of her family in Sri Lanka before and at the start of the hostilities. They have the means to leave for America as the war is beginning. They immigrate to California, but eventually, Yasodhara and her sister La return to their home island. Saraswwathi tells the story of her Tamil family in the midst of the horrors of the war. Horrible things happen and the family experiences loss and brutality .So brutal are the acts against her that she can easily become a Tiger and kill her enemies without hesitation.
The violence and sadness, the loss of life depicted here reminded me of how I felt while reading The Almond Tree . Parts of the book were difficult to read - graphic in detail but the writing is just so good .Towards the end of the book I held my breath wondering if I had guessed what would happen. I did and it was more than heartbreaking even though I knew what was coming.

No side is portrayed as right or wrong; each group of people equally suffers atrocities. Even in the grief in the end there is love and a hopeful look to the future .I don't know what more to say except - wow!

Highly recommended !
Thanks to NetGalley & St. Martins Press
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,473 followers
October 23, 2016
This is a moving saga of two families caught up in the civil war in Sri Lanka between the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the largely Muslim Tamil minority. It is beautifully written, full of lyrical portrayals of daily life amid the beauty of the land and sea and flora and fauna of this island nation. The sensuous world of food, colorful clothes, and family traditions of fishing and commerce as painted by two girls growing up in loving families gives way to the fears wrought by smoldering prejudices between peoples exploding into pervasive violence. A doomed teen love relationship between the cultures is poignantly portrayed. Tamil children are tragically taken up into guerilla training. A girl in the Tamil family is raped and gets radicalized enough to join and fight with the insurgent Tamil Tigers. The Sinhalese family takes the opportunity to emigrate to California, facing a new kind of alienation there. Years later, the narrator and her sister return to take up the challenge of building a new society founded in hope and understanding.

I had only limited understanding of this war based on books by Ondaatje and news accounts over the decades. For other GR readers in the same boat the Wiki article on the civil war can provide some help. For 25 years, from 1983 to 2009, the intermittent violent conflict resulting in 80-100 thousand deaths. These are ancient peoples with distinct languages, cultures, and traditions. The British colonial government before independence contributed to setting up the war by policies favoring the majority Sinhalese. The Tamil Tigers resorted to terrorist extremes in their push for independence, while the Sinhalese dominated government often resorted to genocidal brutality. The Indian government and the UN tried to intervene, but their efforts were usually ineffectual, and the war finally ended through military conquest of the Tamil forces by the Sri Lankan government.

The book stands above such details and speaks to the power of family bonds to instill the drive for life in their youth sufficient to navigate the forces of hate in the world and forge solutions borne of love .
Profile Image for Mary.
418 reviews772 followers
September 6, 2016
I try to explain. There are no martyrs here. It is a war between equally corrupt forces.

This is Sri Lanka during the Civil War (1983-2009), but it could have been many countries, and the Tamils and Sinhalese could have been numerous ethnic groups. This is a story as old as time, because we’ve always been fighting each other, haven’t we? Young boys have always perished for causes they barely understand; women have always been taken and broken.

In my arrogance I expected less from this pastel colored debut, and I was proven wonderfully wrong. There’s nothing fluffy about this novel - it’s brutal, beautiful and deeply affecting. There’s the heartbreak of first love lost, infidelity, marriage breakdown, miscarriage, terrorism, refugee isolation, and war, so much war. There’s an undercurrent of anger in Munaweera’s narrative, a tired, fed-up, plea for this cycle to end. She tells the story from the perspective of two girls from opposing ethnic groups whose tragic fates will mirror each other, as will those thousand mirrors upon a thousand and more unnamed people.

The sound of pure and absolute anguish breaking out from each of us who has paid a price to the demons of war. A sound forged in the lungs of the mothers whose sons have died unnamed in the fields, the fathers whose daughters have gone to fight. A sound to make the war makers quake and flee like the ancient demons, taking with them their weapons, their land mines, their silver-tongued rhetoric, their nationalism, their martyrs, and sacred Buddhist doctrines, the whole pile of stinking bullshit.
Profile Image for Aatreyee Ghosh.
1 review4 followers
February 1, 2014
It is always hard for me to read a book that talks about immigration. Living in a world of literature where the subject of immi-emi and every sort of integration has been talked about so much, I am always a little weary of picking up a book which yet again comes back to the same American-South Asian dichotomy. Moreover, when a writer who has never really been to the home country chooses to write "authentically" about it, it usually ends up in being a parade of exoticized and over-used situations of nostalgia (read Jhumpa Lahiri's latest to know what I am talking about). So, I had met Island of a Thousand Mirrors a number of times at various bookstores, somehow or the other the book snaking its way into my hands but I consciously had kept it back telling myself "I have read similar books".

However, it must be like those love stories where the hero and the beloved keep meeting till they realize the universe is conspiring to get them together. In my case the universe was the people I work for who forced me into the same room with this book which refused to let go of me. Thus, began my slow acquaintance with Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

Nayomi Munaweera and her novel Island of A Thousand Mirrors begins with the same noises that all novels of exile/return begin at. She wills to trace the history of two families, one Sinhala and one Tamil beginning at the moment of inception, quite akin to a Rushdie in Midnight's Children or a Marquez in A Hundred Years of Solitude. However, unlike both these stalwarts, she quickly subsumes her narrative within the more narrow space of the contradictory consciousness of two young girls, seeming to be the schizoid parts of a fragmented psyche. Set against the war torn backdrop of picturesque Sri Lanka, Yasodhara and Saraswathi represent the two sides of the looking glass. Just as in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass where everything has an inverted double, Yasodhara and Saraswathi's stories are the lateral inversions of each other. Both of them are stranded into roles that they are forced to fulfill, one through exile and the other through war. Caught within the grand rhetoric of Nationalism and belonging, home and exile (the most beautiful lines in the novel encapsulate this as "Arteries, streams, and then rivers of Tamils flow out of the city. Behind them they leave...Belonging and Nationalism. It is a list that stays bitter on the tongue, giving birth to fantasies of Retribution, Partition, Secession" )both the protagonists struggle to find a semblance of clarity within the spectral clear charts of their personal histories that had been drawn for them by others. Both are fighting a war that was never hers, just like the thousands in the island who are sacrificed in the name of the greater cause, the Greater war.

Munaweera represents the War in both its absence (through the eyes of the American exiled Yasodhara and her family who listen to the news with bated breath and consume themselves in impotent rage) and its presence (through the breakdown of Saraswathi and her re-creating herself, not quite wholly so, as a rebel fighter). However, unlike other works on the War, there is no machismo, no grand truths, no clarion call of justice, honour or the most illusive of them, glory. And most importantly it is not a masculine war. Every turn of phrase or of event in the novel is guided by a female figure, let it be the matriarch Sylvia Sunethra who heroically saves her Tamil tenants when the mob comes to claim them or Mala who moulds her own story, ironically freed from the constraints of respectability because of her dark colour. Even though both Yasodhara and Saraswathi are hued as the protagonists, it is these litany of women characters, from the hunchbacked Alice to the rebellious and beautiful Lanka to the shy Luxmi who create the myriad images on the silver-backed landscape of these two main characters giving them both the depth and the reflective surfaces of their selves.

It is an unapologetically female novel and there is a marked absence of (refreshingly so) prominent male characters, overturning the very common assumption of War novels being intrinsically male and women in these just play the part of spectators or worse as reduced to the roles of waiting in the proverbial interim room of reflected glory of their male counterparts. The finale does leave you wanting for more in its predictability and staccato nature, but then again life does have an uncanny way of ending with a whimper right?

When I met Nayomi during a seminar at my workplace and was talking to her about her book, she told me how difficult it was to get it published as most of the American publishers dished it saying a woman shouldn't write war novels (well not in these exact words but in similar attitude at least). I didn't understand the comment then. But after reading her novel, I think I do. Nayomi's novel doesn't talk of war as a moment etched in history, viewed through the comfortable lens of the "common good". It doesn't try and justify war as the means to an end or criticize it in a noble, scholastic sort of way. Instead it tell you a story of recklessness, horror, misguided truths and hypocritical stances, it narrates to you the stories that everyone knows but nobody talks about, much like the spoiling of Saraswathi's friend. It creeps into you in the dead of the night and takes you by force and while you writhe and try and free yourself of its sweat and grime, it opens you up, thrusts itself into you and breaks you, leaving the stink of its existence deep within you much longer after it had gone.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,210 reviews453 followers
July 12, 2017
The adjectives "brutal" and "beautiful" aren't normally used together, but they describe this book. Like others, I had no idea that Sri Lanka experienced a 25 year long civil war, killing over 80,000 people. This book chronicles that war on the lives of two families. It begins in the island before the war, with lovely descriptions of the people and their customs, their food, and the natural world that surrounded them. It ends with the loss of not only families, but an entire way of life. Yes, the beauty makes the brutality so much worse.

One of those books that is hard to read in parts. I will never understand why people continue to hate each other so much.
Profile Image for Claire.
633 reviews277 followers
January 8, 2017
In 2016 I read Nayomi Munaweera's second novel What Lies Between Us and it was one of my Top Reads of 2016, a novel of a young woman trying to adjust to life in a new country, though still haunted by both the beauty and tragedy of her past, her childhood in Sri Lanka.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors similarly evokes the childhoods and family life of two families living in the same house. The house is owned by the matriarch Sylvia Sumethra and her husband, The Judge who are Sinhala people (an Indo-Ayran ethnic group originally from northern India, now native to and forming the majority of the population of Sri Lanka, mostly Buddhist) and upstairs they rent to an extended Tamil family (a culturally and linguistically distinct ethnic group native to Sri Lanka, mostly Hindu). It is a time when they live side by side in relative peace, although there are prejudices and intolerances at the adult level, attitudes that are not understood by the children and multiple generations of children will grow up, some capable of bridging those differences, until violence, heartache and tragedy taint them.

Sylvia's daughter Visaka grows up in the house and develops a fearful crush on the son of the family upstairs, later when she is married and gives birth to one of our narrators, her daughter Yasodhara too will befriend Shiva, the next generation son of the family living upstairs.

Her father Nishan is a twin, the lighter skinned one, his sister Mala, despaired of by her mother Beatrice when she was young, perceived as being unlikely to marry, to be rejected, until she finds love without the interference of her family, something of a scandal.
There is silence and then the familiar smack of Beatrice Muriel's palm against her forehead. "A love marriage," she says. In her opinion, love marriages border on the indecent. They signify a breakdown of propriety, a giving in to the base instincts exhibited by the lower castes and foreigners. She believes marriages are too important to be relegated to the randomness of chance meetings and hormonal longings. They must be conducted with precision, calculated by experts, negotiated by a vast network of relations who will verify the usual things: no insanity in the family, evidence of wealth and fertility, the presence of benevolent stars.

Yasodara recalls the moment she was forced to recognise the age old prejudices that perpetuated the myth that she and Shiva were different.
We had been talking in our own shared language, that particular blur of Sinhala, Tamil and English much like what our mothers used in the early days, when suddenly my grandmother, her attention telescoped on us, pins him like an insect. Her iced voice, incredulous, "Are you teaching my granddaughter Tamil?" Her hand smashing hard across his cheek. He rips his hand from mine, turns to run. The camera in my father's hand clicks shut."

When violence enters the town and the soldiers come knocking, their world turns upside down, and both families will leave. Yasodara and her family will move to America and start over.

In Part Two we meet Saraswathi, the eldest daughter of a Tamil family in the northern war zone of Sri Lanka. Her family have already lost two brothers to war and live in fear of losing a third or worse, something terrible happening to the girls. Sara and her sister are still in school, she hopes to become a teacher, but there have been white van abductions and despicable acts of violence and lynchings, which put stress on the family. There is pressure to join the Tamil Tigers, a militant group fighting for independence.
There are roofless, bombed-out houses with bullet-splattered walls and empty, eyeless rooms everywhere. I hate these houses, they look like dead bodies or like mad people, laughing through their openmouthed doorways. I want to know what this place looked like before, when all the houses were whole, when people lived in them and cared about them and grew vegetables in front of them, flowers even.

Munaweera writes exquisitely of the island of Sri Lanka, in lyrical prose that takes the reader inside the family experiences, evoking all the senses, the aroma of the cuisine, the fear and excitement of young, forbidden love, the pain of heartbreak, the fear of palpable tension as sisters walk to school, sometimes witnessing images that will stain their minds and revisit their dreams for years.

Through the forced changes political events put on the families, we become witness to the struggle to adapt, in some the nostalgia for the past will lead them back there, in others, it is as if it never was, they have banished nostalgia and reminiscing from their minds and will do all they can to keep it from their children, not realising that they too will grow up and question their parents origins and be curious to know that part of themselves that provokes questions by others, highlighting the obvious, gaping hole in their identity.

I knew it would be good, it is a prize winning novel and deservedly so, it is endearing, evocative and sensual, touching on both the best of humanity and it's most despicable, unpalatable horrors and the effect that exposure to those horrors can have on the innocent.

Brilliant. Highly Recommended.
Profile Image for  I am what I read.
1,436 reviews126 followers
February 6, 2017
A powerful story told in a lyrical manner.
Have read a couple of Sri Lankan authors before, and being from South India, With Sri Lanka close by, could not escape knowing about the civil war that has been ripping apart the country. This is the first time I am reading the cultural and political history written in a simple and lucid manner. I don't know who is in the right, who is in the wrong. Often, it is both parties both ways. But I do know that any civil war affects utmost the common person who is least interested in strife.
Leaving aside the political aspect, this story let me peek into the cultural and religious facets of ordinary Sri Lankan life. I enjoyed the peek, but abhorred the violence and bloodshed.
This book narrates the lives of Singhalese as well as Tamilian families who were sacrificed in the wake of the civil war. The strong female characters are bonus materials.
Profile Image for Scarlet.
187 reviews1,146 followers
December 16, 2019
“She talks in her most sedate voice, attempting to alleviate our fears, soothe our anxiety. She knows that if we are to survive watching this war from a distance, as spectators, we do not have the privilege of indignation or anxiety.”


I travelled to Sri Lanka in January this year and bought this book as a souvenir. And what a souvenir it's turned out to be. This is a phenomenally written book that recounts the deeply troubled decades of the Sri Lankan civil war through the eyes of two protagonists, one Sinhala, one Tamil, and is as much an ode to the cultural richness and history of the country as a lament for everything that was lost and brutalized in the futility of war. I feel now like I did after reading A Thousand Splendid Suns or The Gift of Rain - more informed but drained by the ugliness of that knowledge, angry that there's so much pointless hate in the world, and also ashamed at how little I know about countries so close to home.
Profile Image for Andrea.
743 reviews31 followers
June 4, 2017
4.5★

I don't have the words to describe the way this exquisite, small book punched me in the gut, but Nayomi Munaweera certainly has a way with words so I've added a heap of quotes. What a story, what a writer! If you don't know much about the civil war in Sri Lanka, you could do a lot worse than start here.
Profile Image for Lilisa.
391 reviews54 followers
June 7, 2015
Powerful, mesmerizing, searing – these are words that come to mind having just put down this novel by first-time author Nayomi Munaweera, which I received from Goodreads. So glad I did, or else I might not ordinarily have come across it, which would definitely have been my loss. An amazingly written masterpiece, the rhythm of the book eerily matches the drumbeat of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which devastated the island nation from 1983-2009 pitting Sinhalese against Tamils and taking the lives of more than 80,000 men, women and children. The novel traces the lives of two young women and their families – Yasodhara, a Sinhalese and Saraswathie, a Tamil. Their lives play out very differently and culminate as paths collide in Sri Lanka's tragic, brutal war arena. The novel is not for the faint of heart – the realities of war are front and center, emotions are raw and raging, and brutalities graphic – war is not pretty and the consequences are devastating. But before all that, Sri Lanka is the land of both the Sinhalese and Tamils living side by side. It’s an island lush with tropical glories of ocean, flora, fauna, foods, culture and tradition captured magnificently. One can almost feel, touch and experience the warm lap of ocean waters, the loamy feel of the land, the exotic aroma of bursting mangoes and the taste and texture of red rice and coconut fish curry. Munaweera’s writing is arresting, hauntingly captivating, tightly woven and highly effective. Every single word has a reason for being on the page – an amazing piece of literature. It’s no wonder then that the book received the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2013. A highly recommended read and one that leaves a lasting impression.
Profile Image for Girish.
816 reviews196 followers
September 4, 2016
"I shall wake up from these long decades of war and begin to see what we can do in peace, what sort of creature we are when the mask of lion or tiger fall from us"

The book is as intense as it gets in one of the most balanced portrayals of the Sri Lankan struggle. The book chooses 2 narrators one on each side - the eldest daughters of one Sinhala family (Yasodhara) and one Tamil family (Saraswati). Their stories (and their parents generation) entwined with the indelible historical events in Sri Lanka hold you mesmerised and like a grenade, blows your heart into a thousand pieces. It could have been 2 books but then all it takes is a mirror.

The novel is written beautifully - simple enough prose with beautiful choice of metaphors and then the terror with no holds barred. Like waves that visit the shore washing away footprints, the story gets built up every time till a piece of terror/violence changes the direction of story. The horrors perpetuated by both the sides in the meaningless war (Is any war meaningful?) makes the moments of peace more beautiful. And the book maintains it is neutrality.

Having grown up on news broadcasts and movies, I never had bothered to read more on the Sri Lankan war history. This book made me read up a lot more and I am thankful for that.

The characters are well developed and it is tough to believe it is the author's first book. The books ends on a note of hope and isn't hope all that one can ask for?
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,682 reviews203 followers
August 28, 2021
“Sometimes I get this breathless feeling that the war is a living creature, something huge, with a pointed tongue and wicked claws. When the tanks rumble past in the far fields, I feel it breathe; when the air strikes start and the blood flows, I feel it lick its lips. I’ve grown up inside this war, so now I can’t imagine what it would be like to live outside it.”

This book is about Sri Lanka’s Civil War between the Sinhalese and Tamils that took place 1983 – 2009. It is told from the perspective of the eldest daughter of two families, one from each side. One family migrates to the US, but they keep abreast on current events, and the vast majority of the book is centered around Sri Lanka. The other family stays and tries to evade the hostilities but ends up immersed in it. The author provides enough historic content to give the reader the necessary background. It examines the question of what leads someone to become a martyr to the cause:

“What could have led her to this singularly terrible end? What secret wound bled until she chose this most public disassembly of herself? Just moments earlier she had been just another nameless woman in the teeming crowd; now, blown to bits, she was either martyr or mass murderer, according to one’s taste. Either way she had attained instant immortality. But what had led her to that moment? This is a question that haunts me.”

The writing is lyrically descriptive, featuring many cultural elements – food, clothing, customs, religions, and traditions. It contains vivid images of the seascape surrounding the island nation:

“Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.”

It portrays life before the civil war, and how it changed. It is a difficult read in that it describes brutal violence, rapes, burnings, and suicide bombings. Even with all this violent content, the author manages to convey hope for the future.
Profile Image for dianne .
619 reviews98 followers
August 3, 2021
For peace there has to be justice. Truth is good, “reconciliation” is nice, but for our natural desire for retribution to be sated, there must be justice. Logical consequences and appropriate rectification. Essentially loving people can become obsessed with revenge, understandably, when they sustain irretrievably damaging violence; and the whole world suffers. Reparations matter.

My time in Sri Lanka, a land of incomparable beauty and magic, was sublime. Close friends of mine, Tamils, lived in Kandy and shared their simple home with me (and monkeys and snakes), surrounded by Sinhalese neighbors with whom they were (then) on good terms. They disappeared suddenly without a trace during the war. An entire, loving, generous family. Just a few of the many random victims of a war generated by prejudice, racism. Divide and be conquered.

Maybe we're an uneducable species.
Profile Image for Anna C.
437 reviews
August 8, 2014
I received an ARC of this book through Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review. I am beyond grateful to have received a free copy. This book is stunning, and I am in awe of Munaweera's descriptive powers.

"The Island of a Thousand Mirrors" follows two teenage girls through the unimaginable horror of the Sri Lankan civil war (though the term genocide does more justice). The Sinhala Yashodhara escapes to Los Angeles and transforms from a shattered refugee to a normal American, while the Tamil Saraswathi becomes a child soldier. Between these two diverging narrators, Munaweera admirably shows a painful piece of Sri Lanka's history.

Munaweera's Sri Lanka feels like a fantasy kingdom. From the first pages of this novel, the reader is bombarded with thick clouds of cardamon and cumin, drowned in the endless shades of green and blue, and lost in the sensuous beauty of the beaches and the ocean. NoViolet Bulawayo called this prose good enough to eat, and I have to agree.

Strangely enough, Munaweera's candy prose is both the book's greatest strength, and the biggest hurdle it must overcome. Her languid descriptions work wonderfully in Yasodhara's expat life of beaches, new clothes, and nascent romances. However, Saraswathi's storyline is saturated with horror. In my opinion, Munaweera did a phenomenal job treading this delicate line. She did not flinch from showing glimpses of pure carnage. She can flip between beauty and horror with more grace than I would have thought possible. Only two moments stretch her powers. The first is the unspeakable event that pushes Saraswathi from intelligent schoolgirl to brutal killer. Munaweera spares no graphic detail and handles this trauma admirably. The second moment was the climax of the novel, when Yashodhara and Saraswathi's storylines collide. Without giving anything away, I'll just say that the violence here is perhaps the only off-pitch novel of the novel. Some horrors can't be expressed in words. Here, Munaweera's gorgeous prose seems out of place.

Overall, this was a 4.5 star book for me. I have only a few small critiques. To me, Yashodhara was the only character who really connects with the reader. Saraswathi's storyline was ripe with potential, but Munaweera actually spends very little time with her. The first fifty or so pages of the novel are spent on the life stories of the parents, grandparents and extended family. I had a very difficult time keeping all of these minor characters straight. This lack of emotional connection meant that the book was not as emotional or visceral as it could have been.

I am also conflicted on Munaweera's presentation of the Sri Lankan civil war. Admirably, she does not choose sides. One of her heroines is Sinhala, one is Tamil. Each girl sees the mindless bloodshed that the other side unleashes. Munaweera does not attempt to place one side in the moral high ground, or present a reductionist account of the conflict, or force in her own political opinions. However, her readers won't be as familiar with the Sri Lankan civil war as she might like. Although Munaweera does an excellent job presenting th simmering racial tension in the novel's first half, I would have appreciated more information on the roots of the Sinhala-Tamil dispute and the political undertones of the crisis.

Despite a few minor hiccups, this is an excellent read. I certainly think that "Island of a Thousand Mirrors" deserves all the awards and hype it is receiving. Munaweera is immensely talented, particularly in her powers of description. I'm just stunned that this is a debut.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,376 reviews2,172 followers
February 22, 2016
My mind is blown away. What a stunning novel. What a heart-breaking novel. I am left feeling all types of ways. Munaweera is a master storyteller. Before reading this book I knew nothing of the civil war that took place in Sri Lanka between 1983-2009. I am so happy I read this book because I really learnt so much about the origin and the horrors that these people went through during that time period.

You hear about these civil wars happening/happened all over the world and it is not until you pick up a book (albeit fiction) that you get an “authentic” look at how lives are torn apart by these wars. This book covers such a difficult topic but Munaweera does it in a raw and engrossing way.

Even though this novel is set during the civil war, Munaweera does not use the pages of this book as a sounding board. The book isn’t about who was right or wrong, it merely highlights the havoc and how displaced families are during the war.

I really loved how this book was written. I loved that book is told from the point of view of two girls on the “opposing” side, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil. With these two points of view you get a well-rounded look at how each side is affected by what is happening around them. While Yasodhara’s point of view is heard more, when you do hear from Sarawathie it is strong to the point and covers a lot- sometimes a lot of what I consider, things that are hard to read.

In some ways I wish Munaweera had used more pages for this novel. I cannot help but feel like there are more to these stories that need to be told. Maybe it is her writing or the events that she writes about but every character I am introduced to, I want to hear more from them. Munaweera’s strong character development and build up will have yearning for more on each of their stories. For example, what happened to the Aunt back home? What happened to Sarawathie’s parents and sister? How exactly did Sarawathie’s mother feel handing her over? I have so many unanswered questions, so many characters I feel needs to get their side of the story told. Maybe this is a mark of a good novel, when you left worried and wondering how each character is coping during the aftermath.

I read somewhere that this is a debut novel, if so, what a stunning debut. I am so excited for Munaweera’s literary future, it is clear she has a strong voice and stories that are bursting to be told.

This book is a MUST read.
Profile Image for Elaine.
773 reviews349 followers
January 16, 2017
The last of the many books related to Sri Lanka that I read as part of a trip there. People in Sri Lanka don't talk much about the war, except in reluctant fragments, and why should they? They didn't live their traumas for the benefit of curious 1st world tourists. Nonetheless, decades of violence lurk behind the lush landscapes, scrumptious curries, ancient monuments and friendly welcoming smiles, and if you're like me, you'll try to learn more, by hook or by crook. For me, that hook is always literature. Munaweera helped filled in the picture.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors stands alone though also, as a family story about migration and emigration, about violence and love. I thought the writing was deft, and in places nearly as powerful as the subject matter. And she steers away from easy answers. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Tamara Agha-Jaffar.
Author 6 books239 followers
August 15, 2020
Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera tells the story of the Sri Lankan civil war which raged from 1983-2009, claiming over 80,000 lives. The events leading up to and including the civil war between the Sinhalas and Tamils unfold in the voices of two young women on opposite sides of the ethnic divide.

Part 1 of the novel focuses on Yasodhara and her Sinhala family. Yasodhara describes the beauty of pre-war Sri Lanka with its pristine beaches, unpolluted ocean, abundant fish, colorful sunsets, succulent fruits, and aromatic foods. This section, with its immersive description of the lush landscape, also introduces her grandparents, parents, and sister. Yasodhara has an eye for detail and exhibits a delightful sense of humor as she highlights her family’s quirks and foibles. With tensions increasing between the Sinhalas and Tamils leading up to the civil war, Yasodhara’s family use their resources and contacts to leave Sri Lanka for Los Angeles.

Part 2 opens with the first-person voice of a young Tamil woman, Saraswathi. It then alternates between her voice and the voice of Yasodhara. Saraswathi’s dreams of becoming a teacher are shattered when she is brutally raped by army personnel who then abandon her for dead. She staggers home only to be told her “spoiled” woman status leaves her no option but to join the Tamil insurgency. She is indoctrinated by the Tamil Tigers and demonstrates her prowess in becoming a killing machine with a lust for revenge, butchering government forces and innocent civilians with no compunction. Her path collides with Yasodhara and her sister who have returned to Sri Lanka to work with orphaned children. The consequences are devastating.

The novel has many strengths. It immerses the reader in the culture, prejudices, and tensions evident in Sri Lankan families both before and during the war. It is a powerful illustration of the universal brutality of all wars with each side perpetrating horrendous atrocities while claiming the moral high ground. It shows the impact on innocent civilians who are brutalized by one side or the other, their young forcibly recruited to join the ranks of fighters and their women used as instruments of war. Fighters on both sides are so brutalized they de-humanize the enemy, maiming and killing at random. And those who survive the horror suffer internal scars that may never heal. Through her graphic description of the violence and devastating impact of civil war, Munaweera demonstrates a universal truth about war: it is brutal and it brutalizes.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in its diction, rhythmic language, and immersive detail. The sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere of Sri Lanka are evoked in lyrical, vivid prose. One can almost bite into the succulent mangoes, luxuriate in the warmth of the ocean, and feel the languid summer heat. The natural beauty of this tropical island, captured in breathtaking imagery, is later contrasted with the horror of corpses and mutilated limbs situated on full display in villages to terrorize the population. The immigrant experience of adjusting to life in America is realistically reflected in the struggles with outsider status as well as in the initial bewilderment and humorous observations on cultural differences. The characters are well-developed and authentic. Both Yasodhara and Saraswathi are portrayed with sympathy and depicted as caught up in circumstances completely beyond their control.

This is a powerful and deeply moving novel unfolding in exquisite, captivating language. It evokes the lush beauty of Sri Lanka skillfully contrasting it with the brutality of war on a people and its land.

Highly recommended and well deserving of the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region.

My book reviews are also available at www.tamaraaghajaffar.com
Profile Image for Cherisa B.
455 reviews36 followers
May 24, 2020
This novel of Sri Lanka was quite moving but what’s really stayed with me is the experience of the children when they arrived in America and were staying with a benefactor in a wealthy LA neighborhood. The girls go from the teeming life of their native land to empty streets and big yards with everyone hidden in their homes but aware enough of the girls when they are out exploring to report them to the police. What a culture shock that must have been.
Profile Image for Carly Thompson.
1,180 reviews22 followers
September 22, 2014
Literary fiction about the effects of the Sri Lankan civil war. The first part of the novel is narrated by Yasodhara. She describes her family's background on both her mother's and father's sides of the family and her early childhood in Colombo. Her Sinhala family moves to the U.S. in the early 1980s after the outbreak of Sri Lanka Civil War. The second part is set years later during the Civil War. The narrator is Saraswathi, a young Tamil girl studying to be teacher. After she is abducted and brutally raped by Sinhala soldiers she becomes radicalized and joins the Tamil insurgents. The lives of Yasodhara and Saraswathi intersect in tragedically in Sri Lanka when Saraswathi is responsible for the death of Yasodhara's beloved younger sister while deploying a suicide bomb on a bus.

I enjoyed the beginning of the novel and learning about life in Sri Lanka and the adjustments the family experienced when they immigrated to America. The shift to a different narrator in the second part of the book (and then back to Yasodhara) was abrupt and Saraswathi was not as well defined a character. The events towards the end - Yasodhara's husband cheats on her but then she falls in love with her childhood friend who was her sister's boyfriend -- were too melodramatic. The language also struck me as too self-consciously poetic; at point characters having sex were described as riding each other like waves.

The differences between Tamils and Sinhalas were described on a simplistic level and never went very deep. I felt it was a strong first effort and the depictions of family dynamics were a highlight of the book. Munaweera definitely has talent and hopefully her future work will have more cohesive plotting. This book will appeal to readers who enjoy Southeast Asian fiction and depictions of the horrors of war.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Amber.
215 reviews
November 21, 2014
Thank you to Goodreads first reads and St. Martin’s Press for an advanced copy of the book.

This book takes place in Sri Lanka during their civil war that started in the 80’s and ended in 2009. It was between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the 2 largest ethnic groups living there. This book is about children who grew up during this time and the way the atrocities occurring around them impacted their lives. I was a bit confused about who was who, but my book was an advanced readers copy and did not contain the map of Sri Lanka or the family trees of the characters which I think will be available when the book is actually released. So, for a long time I was thinking one of the main characters was male when the story was really about a female. Once I straightened the characters out in my head, I was able to enjoy the book more. The book mostly follows the stories of 2 girls Yasodhara and Saraswathi, one a Tamil and one a Sinhalese. They do not know each other, but their stories find each other in the end. The author does take a while providing the background of Yasodhara’s and Saraswathi’s families before it turns the focus mainly on the girls themselves. The book does talk about the war, but it is really about the details of these girls’ lives and the lives of their families. I really got swept up in the story of these women. The writing is really good. The book made me think about things… rebels, brainwashing, marriage and family duty. I am still thinking about this book 2 days after finishing it and will probably think about it for a good bit more.
Profile Image for Melinda.
1,020 reviews
November 10, 2014
Two women on opposing sides of the Sri Lankan Civil War.

The contrasting and complimentary protagonists add an extremely powerful element to this moving story. Munaweera’s sparse but affecting prose depicts the atrocities and mayhem of civil war, the mental toll along with the physical and emotional expense suffered by all, no one exempt.

Yasodhara’s voice is the central focus, however, Sarawathie’s voice is a perfect example of ‘less is more.’ Yasodhara is Sinhala. Surrounded by a family with unlimited love, privilege along with expectations, her parents ambitions are heavy. A carefree girl, unknowing of the differences surrounding her, subtly and indelicately she becomes acutely aware of the deep fissure dividing Sinhala and Tamil. Her presence alone in combination with Munaweera’s ability undeniably set the stage for an emotionally comprehensive and compelling narrative.

The second voice resonating long after the narrative is completed, a young Tamil girl, Saraswathie. Her presence is restrained and tangible. Residing in the middle of the violent chaos, she pursues her dreams never tempered by her volatile location. Arrested by Sinhala soldiers, her life is irrevocably changed forever. She finds herself tangled in the ugly web she desperately avoided, unknowingly her life will intersect with Yasodhara in the most unimaginable way. Sarawathie will touch the reader, you’ll love her and loathe her. You’ll feel empathy for this child as a victim, pawn and culprit. A perfect example of how every one loses in war. Munaweera masterfully creates two characters equal in substance amidst a superfluous savage backdrop of war.

Munaweera’s novel is powerful and emotional. Cultural divide, family roots, forbidden love all brought to reality through the voices of two convincing female protagonists in the decades long unrest. An island rich in beauty is equally rich in roughness. Purely character driven nonetheless the depths of war reverberate. Munaweera’s style is stealth with incredible fortitude, meager yet substantial in content and as a whole. Forceful story.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,165 reviews541 followers
September 18, 2014
Imagery in this prose is phenomenal for a debut novel. I had little knowledge of the Civil War in Sri Lanka before I read this book. I knew there was a genocide of sorts between "tribal lineages" but not of this length of time, nor of the complexity of spatial relationship between the Tamil and the Sinhalese speakers. 25 years and such extreme brutality, comparable to the Central African machete genocides.

But the story itself is about families, primarily those that live on two different floors of a single building. And two girls.

Others have reviewed it here on GR far better than I can do. The scope was nearly perfect in this book, as it was 90% crushingly real and beautiful, with 10% of the punch of reality left for the end. But I think it lacks a star only in the continuity of the story line re characterization, with one girl getting far less copy. That aspect was somewhat forgiven because the names and family relationships were helped by the chart at the beginning, which I did use at 4 different points in the story. This is not a difficult read at all. It's also an immigration story as well as family or historical fiction.

I'm so glad I found this book serendipity on the library "New Book" shelf- without any inkling of subject matter or recommendation with synopsis. Because I took it completely open and had no idea where it was going. If you like the novels that Khaled Hosseini has written (Kite Runner, 1000 Splendid Suns)you would like this book. Yet this book/author holds even more beautiful crisp descriptive heat and color than Hosseini, but the characterizations are just as good. The women's characterizations are frankly better.


Profile Image for Liz Janet.
581 reviews381 followers
May 4, 2016
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway in exchange for an honest review.

This follows a Tamil and a Sinhala family, which are the opposite sides of Sri-Lanka politics, and it is told from the perspective of the eldest daughter, as we navigate love, pain, exile/migration/refuge, war.

The book can be considered to be divided into two parts. The first one is a buildup to the tensions that devastated the country and the families, and how relationships between the characters were formed before the disaster took place. The second one shows the abuse perpetrated by both sides as they both believed to be right, the many deaths, nationalism, even a bit of ethnic cleansing.

No one is portrayed to be correct, they are both shown good and bad sides. It is about the sometimes uselessness of erroneous truths, hypocrisy, and grittiness of conflict.

I have to give thanks to whatever it was that gave me the chance to win this book because it gave me a beautifully crafted novel that led to me coming to know about the Sri-Lankan civil war. To this day, even though I read it a while back, the words and descriptions still echo in my mind as I live and re-live what happened, I too come from a country torn up by war, were the wound is festering, and everyone waits for it to explode, maybe that is why I feel so connected. Truly a great book.
Profile Image for P..
440 reviews112 followers
August 5, 2020
A compelling, humane tale wrapped around the Sri Lankan ethnic conflicts and civil war. It's a very impressive debut novel with elegant prose and an arresting storyline.

The narrator is an immigrant from Sri Lanka who migrated in the 80s when the conflicts were escalating into a full blown civil war. We get slices of (mostly privileged) Sinhalese and Tamil lives blown violently away from the comforts of a peaceful life as the tornado of war makes its way across the Lankan island. I liked that the focus lingered mostly on women's lives, and I learnt a lot of surprising facts. I never knew that Sri Lankan Buddhists practised casteism, for example. Sinhalese culture and traditions seem to have a shocking amount in common with the general Indian culture, which makes the civil war all the more bewildering. I wonder if ethic/cultural/religious/linguistic minorities really thrive anywhere (or at least live without any harassment) in any part of the world, given how human nature always leans towards emphasizing the differences between fellow humans. It is definitely not flattering that a major chunk of human history has been shaped either by resentment or a feeling of cultural superiority or an outright hatred of The Other.

Halfway through the book, I was tempted to describe it as The God of Small Things meets Funny Boy because of its mesmerising portrait of childhood in a country in conflict with itself. I would have been hasty to confer such high praise on this book based solely on Part One.

The narrator who is a child/teenager in Part One is an adult in Part Two, and this is where I found the novel stumbling. The charm sustained in Part One is lost when the novel switches tracks, and the prose falls prey to many literary novel clichés. The metaphors grew grating and the first person narration became a bit hackneyed in its description of emotions. The character of Saraswathi need not have been introduced so late in the book when it becomes pretty obvious what her purpose is. The slip from the first person narrative of Part One is pretty jarring here, and while Saraswathi's character is introduced to educate us about both sides of the war, I wish it were done more elegantly/unobtrusively. Given that it's set against the backdrop of war, I feel that the story had a lot of potential that remains untapped. It could have been set in a much larger canvas, and I am somewhat disappointed at the customary treatment of themes.

That said, Island is still a great book to learn about the ethnic conflicts in Sri Lanka, one that does not take sides. It provides an engaging fictional account of humans in the face of war - of those who can afford to escape its wrath, and of those for whom choice remains an abstract dream.
Profile Image for Sezín Koehler.
Author 4 books63 followers
December 31, 2015
Devastatingly beautiful. This is the first book I've ever read about my people in Sri Lanka, and it was eerie to see stories I heard growing up about the riots and the Civil War come to life with Munaweera's words. There's even a yellow Volkswagon in the story, and it was my parents actually who had the first Volkswagon Beetle in Sri Lanka in the mid 1970s. The descriptions of Sri Lanka, the food, the smells, the colors, the life, were so vivid I had goosebumps remembering so many things from my visits there and my childhood. Such a lovely place to have had so many unspeakable horrors within on account of the decades-long civil war. Munaweera puts words to the unspeakable war crimes on all sides, and puts faces to the conflict that will educate even someone who has never heard of Sri Lanka in the place's long history and the stories of its people through women's voices. What a feat she's accomplished here, distilling the weight of war, displacement, and immigration into a slim volume that surprises me when I pick it up: like the book should be heavier with everything it holds. This should be required reading in every high school and university. It should be required reading period. The war that tore apart Sri Lanka went on for decades before anyone outside other than the displaced Sri Lankans cared about it, and this should be a global shame. And even though technically the war is over now, the repercussions and corruption and Tamil genocide do continue. I wonder if there will ever truly be peace there. Then again, you can say that about anywhere I suppose. Highly recommend this book. It's easily one of the most important books I've ever read and I know I'll be revisiting it often, even though it's a tough read.
Profile Image for Janet.
Author 19 books87.7k followers
December 26, 2014
Shortlisted for the Man Asia Prize, Munaweera's lyrical, intensely emotional novel of the Sri Lankan civil war is a beautifully handled epic told in only 238 pages. The story of several intertwined Sri Lankan families on both sides of the divide of religion--Buddhism and Hindusim--as civil war comes to them, separating neighbors who have lived side by side for generations, by fear and then by hideous violence. Who is this benefiting becomes the unanswerable question.

Told from the point of view of the children of these families--who beomce the parents and even grandparents in the course of the short novel--the story is told so tenderly and economically, yet the poetry of its prose never cheats us of the sensuality and drama of this beautiful, terrifying place. One family flees for its life, to America, but can never really separate. Others move into the heart of the violence.

My quote is on the back cover:

"“Munaweera writes with ferocity, fire and poetry of the incomprehensible madness of civil war and its effects upon those caught within it... A masterful, incendiary debut."

I'm going to stand by that. Poetical, political, personal, intimate and epic.
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