25 January 2016

Sent up the River — What Lies Between Us Review

"The walls of my cell are painted an industrial white, like albumen." So begins the confession of the protagonist of Nayomi Munaweera's new novel What Lies Between Us. With an opening like that and an epigraph from Dante's Divina Commedia, it should be obvious immediately that this is not a happy tale. Yet as our narrator dives bank into the retelling of her mostly happy childhood in Sri Lanka and adolescence in California, it is easy to forget or, at least, reinterpret what has come before. Gradually, however, the repercussions of past events begin to build as the novel advances towards its inevitable, devastating conclusion.

Growing up as the only daughter to well-to-parents in the city of Kandy, our narrator, who remains nameless until the end of the novel, lives an idyllic life. She is popular and clever and although her relationship with her Amma (mother) is sometimes volatile, she is doted on by her Thatha (father), and their servants, Sita and Samson. But then things begin to happen that make her feel ashamed and afraid, until finally, a tragedy strikes that catalyses her relocation to California, to join her aunt, uncle and cousin Dharsi.

In California, the girl is torn between Sri Lankan traditions and the temptation of American life. She thrives at school, wins a place at a good university and makes a career for herself. She is happy enough, but feels that something is missing and wonders if she will ever overcome the dark secrets that lie in her past. Then she meets Daniel, an artist, and the two begin to make a life together. Perhaps she has been granted a second chance — a chance to make things right. But just as this possibility of happiness hangs, tantalisingly close, the demons she thought she had left behind finally catch up with her and wreak their destructive consequences.

Munaweera's novel is incredibly abundant in its detail, painting a rich picture of life in Sri Lanka and the Bay Area during the latter part of the last century. The colours, the images and the smells are all imagined vibrantly. It is the water imagery that resonates throughout the novel, however. The narrator's father swims in the local river and she and Daniel pass through a critical stage of their relationship at Lake Tahoe, but more than that, ponytails gush, there are undercurrents of shock and even the sun pours in through a San Francisco apartment window. When the narrator looks back on her childhood and what happened to her, she switches over to watery metaphors: her capillaries and veins feel as though they are filled with stagnant algaed water, for instance.

It isn't difficult to be swept along with Munaweera's well-crafted tale. What Lies Between Us is highly compelling and suspenseful, driving us to read on to find out the fate of the narrator — despite whatever she may or may not have done, we want to root for her, even when she is difficult or behaves badly. We want to understand, even if it may not be possible. The novel's dark undertones make it hard to read at times, but it is well worth persevering to experience this beautifully written and unflinching portrait of a life tarnished by betrayal and pain.

Disclaimer: What Lies Between Us will be published by St Martin's Press on 16 February 2016. I received a pre-release copy via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

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