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Brotherless Night by VV Ganeshananthan review – heartbreak in war-torn Sri Lanka

Brotherless Night by VV Ganeshananthan review – heartbreak in war-torn Sri Lanka

American writer VV Ganeshananthan’s devastating second novel, Brotherless Night, has recently been shortlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. Mainly set in Jaffna during the long, blood-drenched years of the Sri Lankan civil war, fought between the Sinhalese-dominated state and Tamil separatist groups, the book is an unforgettable account of a country and a family coming undone.

At its heart is the narrator, Sashi Kulenthiren, an aspiring doctor whose brothers Seelan and Dayalan join the militant Tamil Tigers after their eldest sibling is killed in anti-Tamil riots. In her grief, anger and confusion, Sashi is heartbreakingly human. In one scene, Seelan and Dayalan come home after a training stint in India and we see Sashi pained by their new reserve and fazed by their temerity. “We have been taught to think that Tamil children should only be that obedient to their parents, and it was strange to see another loyalty.” To their mother’s livid and anguished queries – “Why did you leave us? Where did you go? Who took you there? Were you safe? How did you come back here? How long will you stay?” – Seelan and Dayalan give only terse, evasive answers.

As the war progresses, and Sashi’s friendship with K, a high-ranking militant, leads her to become a medic at a field hospital for the Tigers, loyalty inevitably becomes for her, too, a fraught concept. She starts to keep aspects of her life secret from her family. There are heated moments between Sashi and her father, and Sashi and her youngest brother, Aran, where they exchange recriminations and verbalise harsh truths.

Part of Ganeshananthan’s genius lies in the way she gives the reader a multifaceted perspective on Sashi’s motivations. Sashi takes up the work because she wants to do good and help people, regardless of their political beliefs. But, equally, you could say she does it out of love for K, and to bargain for the safety of her brothers “by filling every crevice of my time with usefulness”. When the Tigers turn on civilians and helpless members of other rebel factions, Sashi will begin to reckon with her own role in the war. Teaming up with a medical school professor and her husband, she will also embark on a perilous project of documenting human rights violations committed by the Tigers, the Sri Lankan army and Indian peacekeepers.

Brotherless Night is a spectacular work of historical fiction: thoroughly researched, brimming with outrage and compassion, and full of indelible imagery. A terrorised dog weeps because it “could hear what we could not: tanks or planes on the move in the distance”. One curfewed night, as Sashi goes out to pick curry leaves, a patrolling military helicopter clocks the flash of her torch, and instantly starts firing. “I wrapped my arms around one corner of our house, under our veranda roof, and held the embrace until the thrum of the propellers moved on.”

The novel has the intimacy of a memoir, the urgency of reportage, and the sweep and scale of the epic. It occasionally employs the second person to address the reader. In this, it sits somewhere between plea and testimony. And while the revelations are distressing, the narration itself is buoyed up by a rare and robust emotional force. Ganeshananthan’s prose is rich, eloquent, utterly unsparing. “The war,” Sashi tells us, “offered us only tight quarters.” Brotherless Night can in places feel similarly claustrophobic. And yet, one keeps reading because to stop would be to look away. Ganeshananthan renders complacency and apathy impossible through the sheer effectiveness of her powers as a novelist.

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Source: theguardian.com