It is the late 1980s in southern Sri Lanka and Bradley Sirisena’s father is abducted and tortured during the violent struggle for power between the state and local insurgents. Savi, a Sri Lankan research student long settled in the UK, has lost her way in both her thesis and her life, when she receives a wedding invitation from the uncle she would rather ignore. Meanwhile in a coastal fort in Sri Lanka, her cousin Renu continues to try to uncover the secret of Bradley’s father’s disappearance as she works with the wives and widows of the disappeared. Reunited on Savi’s return to Sri Lanka, the cousins are compelled to confront truths that put them into direct conflict in their understanding of both the past and themselves. As the story draws to its inevitable end, a tsunami strikes and carries them all into a future that promises to be even more disturbing than the past. The novel is a haunting evocation of intersecting lives and parallel times that draws upon real historical events. Linking the personal with the political, it carries readers into the shifting landscape of memory where competing versions of the truth coexist. In this richly textured book, myth and magic merge, as the bustle of a seaside city in England gives way to the unreal calm of coastal communities in southern Sri Lanka where thousands disappeared without trace.
This rather wonderful novel has very few reviews here, so I suspect that not many people knew about it when it was first published in 2014. Minoli Salgado, who lives in England, has Sri Lankan ancestry and was born in Malaysia, came to my attention when her short story collection Broken Jaw was deservedly shortlisted for this year's Republic of Consciousness Prize. Like much of that collection this first novel makes poetic prose from tragic and violent events.
The story is in five parts. The first introduces us to Savi, who is doing academic work in Brighthelm (a thinly disguised Brighton) and is separated from her English husband. She descibes the circumstances in which her late father decided to send her to school in England, and also the way her marriage started to unravel on her honeymoon in Sri Lanka as their expectations diverged. At the end of this section she receives an invitation to her cousin's wedding in the South of Sri Lanka. In her acknowledgments Salgado explains that its setting, known simply as the Fort in the b0ok, was based on the Dutch Fort at Matara.
The second part describes Savi's arrival at her uncle's house, and explores her complex relationship with her cousin Renu, whose schooling was cut short by the civil war, and who spends much of her time helping a project that encourages victims of disappearances and other acts of violence to talk about their experiences. Their relationship is overshadowed by old sibling rivalries between Savi's father and her uncle.
All of this builds towards the final section, where the family wedding party is hit by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, with inevitably tragic consequences.
The political side of the story is much more about the conflict between the revolutionary communist JVP in the south and the government than the more widely known war in the north against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), but many of the events were just as brutal and tragic.
Salgado largely succeeds in retaining the human side of her story, and the book is ultimately very moving.
Minoli Salgado first came to my attention when her excellent collection of stories, Broken Jaw, was shortlisted for the 2020 Republic of Consciousness Prize. However her novel, A Little Dust On the Eyes was published earlier: it won the inaugural SI Leeds Literary Prize in 2012, a biennial prize for unpublished fiction by UK Black and Asian women, and was subsequently published by Peepal Tree Press. Broken Jaw was actually longlisted for the Prize in the same year.
Salgado, who also lives in the UK, has explained in interviews:
‘The story evolved from the many visits I made to the country at the height of the civil war, when disappearances were rife and people just did not speak openly about what was happening. I was interested in finding a language that might make this silence speak.’
and (referring to both this and Broken Jaw):
“The books deal with silenced stories from Sri Lanka – a country that has been through one of the longest civil wars in modern times as well as of course the world’s worst natural disaster, the Boxing Day tsunami.
I felt there was an urgent need to engage with these large historical events that took place in a country people know little about, while acknowledging my own dual perspective – of someone who travels back and forth and belongs in two places without fully belonging in either – as well as the fact that such tragedies are difficult to write or speak about.”
Set in late 2004, a Little Dust On The Eyes centres two cousins, now in their 20s, and childhood friends from Sri Lanka. Renu still lives in the country but Savi lives in England, first sent to boarding school there in 1985, two years after her mother died at the time of Black July (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_July). She is now studying for her PhD in Brighthelm (essentially Brighton):
Savi drew her scarf around her and braced herself for the sea wind. The distant stalks of esplanade lights flickered into view, coming to her through the spray as a pale shower of young coconut flowers, waxy buds falling from golden wedding urns as she peeled them clean. Here they were again, glowing warm against the sea. She was used to them now, these once disconcerting slips. They were to be expected in this land of shifted, shifting things, where hills rose and fell in smooth, leafless echoes, undulating like a frozen sea, and the sea itself materialised as solid waves of flint that matched the broken rocks on the shore. Brighthelm was spread between these repeating rolls of grey hills and waves, sometimes as a space of possibility, sometimes ephemeral as a dream. She would move through winding al- leys that opened into gardens, pass lights that led to darkness, a pier that drew her over sea. As she walked above the moving water, she felt how much she’d left of herself behind. There were spinning wheels and trains that carried tourists into the clouds, and a language that turned chaotic on the lips. It was a place that shifted time and region, of rain from other shores. At its heart lay a royal dream of Asia a curved and flowing building affectionately called The Pavilion; a prince’s whim, a sideshow, where turquoise minarets and parasols of palm trees covered writhing dragons of red and gold.
Savi walked through the Lanes with her rucksack on her back, stepping out of the way of the crowds, the men and women who strode out of shops as glossy as air- port magazines and dined al fresco in those sea-front hotels made famous in films
The cobbled streets were too narrow for the jutting shop signs that festooned her native city, signs that reached out and bickered with one another. She would pause by windows spangled with lights as bright as the sequined silks within, enter the aisle and run her fingers through the skirts, feeling the texture of those places that rose in her mind – saris, shawls, shirts, sarongs that fluttered from the open stalls of the Pettah. ‘How much?’ ‘Forty pounds.’ In the Pettah it might have been less than four.
Savi has visited Sri Lanka just twice since she left, once for her father’s funeral and the second time for an honeymoon with her English husband, one that proved the beginning of the end of their marriage. Tellingly he has remained closer to Sri Lanka, even persuading his mother to have her second wedding there, than she, her knowledge of events in the country largely confined to what is reported in the international press and her academic research into literature and myths.
Remu in contrast, is actively engaged in helping the families impacted by the disappearances that arose not only from the internationally well-known civil war between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE (better known in the UK as the Tamil Tigers) in the North of the country, but also from the JVP insurrection in the south (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1987–19...), events that largely took place when Savi was outside the country:
Savi and Renu had grown up in a time of silence, of events with blind, buried witnesses, when it was what was left unspoken that carried the burden of truth. Their lives were enmeshed in a hidden war that failed to make the international news, a war masked by shrieking headlines on the larger war between the government and the LTTE, so that the killings, disappearances and abductions in the south that claimed many thousands of lives came to gather dust in the files of human rights observers. This war lacked the comfortable logic of race and ethnicity, the logic of religious, cultural difference, the easy distinctions favoured by those who liked to keep things simple and clean. This was a class war amongst the Sinhalese - young insurgents against a paternalistic state, cousin against cousin, brother against brother, a settling of scores where long-standing fears, ancient rivalries, secrets, betrayals, mistrust, grudges, inequities and resentments determined the call to arms. It was a family war, an internal matter of blood, marking a violence that could not be reasoned away. And like all dirty secrets, it grew in the silence it imposed.
Savi has lived through this time on the wings of her father’s letters, having been transported aboard just two years after her mother died in Black July. But for Renu there was no respite. She lived in and through this time, could feel the shards of history embedded in her skin.
As the novel opens Savi, at first reluctantly, accepts an invite to return a third time – to attend the wedding of a cousin, Remu’s brother.
“If I had the chance I’d go back,” Hannah shook her hair loose from the towel and rubbed It back the forth behind her neck. “I’ve never been further than Gibraltar. All monkeys and rock. I’d love to go somewhere with guaranteed sunshine, Lie on the beach all day with waves lapping around.”
“It’s not that simple. I have family there. And Sri Lanka is all monkeys and rock too. The waves don’t lap.”
The hint here of course of what the reader – but not the characters – knows looms over the whole novel - the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami is poised to strike. And while the novel’s ending is therefore strongly prefigured, it is still shocking.
The novel is clearly based on thorough research but wears that lightly and gives a powerful treatment of its subject matter.
‘A Little Dust on the Eyes’ is an extraordinary novel. The blurb describes it as ‘haunting and richly textured’ and so it is. The writing is very visual – images have stayed with me, like the one from the first page where one of the protagonists of the novel, Savi, watches a friend walk away with her child, ‘the pale face of the child, slumped over Hannah’s shoulder, and the small star of her hand as she waved goodbye.’ It is haunting too in the losses it describes. Savi has lost both parents and her home; her father sends her to England to be educated after her mother’s death, saying it is ‘for the best.’ Her cousin Renu grows up in the violence of the war in Sri Lanka, ‘in a time of silence… when it was not what was said, but what was left unspoken that carried the burden of truth.’ She collects newspaper accounts of the violence and the disappearances in an attempt to find connections, to produce an account of what is happening in her world. While Savi studies Sri Lankan myth in England, Renu tries to study Sri Lankan fact in Sri Lanka. And then the tsunami hits ... This is a novel which asks to be read more than once. The richness of the prose, the complexity of the tragedies it deals with and the difficulties of narrating them can’t be fully grasped, I think, in only one reading.
This was a captivating reading experience from start to finish. As a fan of Michael Ondaatje's work, I found A Little Dust on the Eyes an intriguing counterpoint to Anil's Ghost. Like Ondaatje, Salgado is preoccupied with the entanglements of love, loss, trauma, nation and memory. A Little Dust on the Eyes' treatment of these concerns, however, has a singularity of style and eloquence of approach that sets it apart from many novels, debut or otherwise. From the first page to the last, I was struck by Salgado's nuanced rendering of a politics and language of touch. This connects the seemingly disparate spaces of South England and Sri Lanka in always engaged and engaging ways. Having read a good number of 'postcolonial diasporic' texts, I'm often left with the feeling that authors are going through the motions - adhering to those tried, and somewhat tired methods that make them indistinguishable from a host of others. I finished A Little Dust on the Eyes, however, wanting more - a sure sign of a genuinely effective and affective literary encounter. The formal and thematic particularities of the novel stayed with me long after I returned it to my bookshelf. I look forward to revisiting it again and again as I wait for more from this singularly compelling author.
This is a beautifully realised exploration of departure, dislocation and return. Set during the Sri Lankan civil war, Minoli Salgado has managed to weave a very personal tale of childhood and memory, set against a backdrop of violence and distrust. Her writing is restrained and poetic, with each perfectly crafted sentence building towards a powerful conclusion. A highly recommended debut.