Island of a Thousand Mirrors
book by Nayomi Munaweera | review by Casey Matthews
The island country of Sri Lanka lies off the southern coast of India and is roughly the size of West Virginia. From 1983 until 2009, this small country was engaged in a brutal civil war that left an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Sri Lankans dead. The cause of the civil war was the growing tension between the country’s two main ethnic groups –the minority Tamils and majority Sinhalese.
Author Nayomi Munaweera is Sinhalese and left Sri Lanka with her family in the 1970s, but wrote her debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, to provide a balance between these two sides and to demonstrate how in any war, the violence is never confined to the soldiers; the war spreads to every home on every corner of the island and affects everyone. As Munaweera said in an interview with NPR, “…both sides (the Tamil Tigers and the government) are complicit. There’s really no innocence here.”
Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a generational novel that shows the growing conflict through two families, one Tamil and one Sinhalese. The story is narrated through various women in these two families, with the large portion of the novel dedicated to two women whose lives take drastically different paths but later intertwine; Yasodhara is a Sinhalese woman whose family is able to escape the conflict by moving to Los Angeles, and Saraswathie, is an aspiring teacher whose Tamil ethnicity leads her into the heart of the civil war.
Munaweera is a powerful and poetic writer; by a few pages in, I was entranced and in awe of her carefully chosen words. This book is crafted so beautifully that I had a hard time putting it down (I finished it in two days). But be warned—as beautiful as Munaweera describes the Sri Lankan setting and as deeply as she develops the characters, she also holds nothing back in some of the book’s most brutal scenes. There were moments where I had to look away, needing a respite from the horror that inevitably is connected to war. In one scene, Saraswathie is violently raped by several Sinhalese soldiers, and in another scene, several Tamil soldiers brutally murder Sinhalese civilians. Munaweera originally completed the book in 2007 and rewrote the ending in 2009 once the civil war ended, and while I like that Munaweera ends her novel on a hopeful note, I felt the ending was a bit foreseeable. That being said, Munaweera is still a very promising writer, and I look forward to her future novels.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a compelling journey into the heart of another country and people, that sheds light on a conflict that took decades to end and that, in order for the country to heal, will take even more time. As with any book that centers on war, the worst scars are the ones that people carry inside of themselves, and the hardest battle to fight is that of forgiveness.
Casey Posey Matthews graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in English Education from University of Louisiana in Monroe and her Master of Arts degree in English from University of New Orleans and is now an English teacher at Beachwood High School in Cleveland, OH.