Nayomi Munaweera

Island of a Thousand Mirrors

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors Summary

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a 2016 novel by Nayomi Munaweera. It combines real historical events in Sri Lanka (formerly the British colony called Ceylon) with the fictional history of a family and other characters who interact with the family. Told in a realistic, straightforward style, it explores the many obvious and hidden consequences of war with an effective combination of bluntness and emotional complexity.

The book opens with a brief passage describing a post-coital moment, then flashes back to 1948 when Ceylon has just won its independence from Great Britain. The book’s narrator then introduces herself as Yasodhara Rajasinghe. She describes her father, Nishan, in 1948 as a seven-year old boy, and his twin sister Mala. Nishan sees a school of silver fish that seem like a thousand mirrors in the ocean. Nishan and Mala’s mother, Beatrice, is a teacher and a member of the Sinhala people, the majority of Sri Lanka’s population and privileged in many ways in Sri Lankan society. Their father is a doctor but of a less prestigious bloodline mixed with the Tamil, the minority ethnicity in Sri Lanka.

Yasodhara recounts how her grandparents met, and Beatrice’s growing dissatisfaction with her life and ambition for her children. The family leaves their fishing village and move to Colombo, sixty miles away, so Nishan and Mala can attend university. In Colombo, a woman named Sylvia and her husband, known as the Judge, have a daughter named Visaka, and take in a woman named Alice as their servant. Sylvia allows Alice to bring her son, Dilshan, as well.

Mala and Nishan learn about the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka; although they are taught that the Tamil have just as much right to the island as the Sinhala, other Sinhala also warn that if allowed the Tamil would drive them off the island forever. They hear rumors of killings of Hindu Tamils by Muslim Sinhala people.

Mala grows up the victim of prejudice and bullying because of her dark skin that makes her look Tamil. She marries a fellow student impulsively in hopes of escaping her childhood traumas, without going through the traditional ceremonies and rituals. Nishan is considered more acceptable by society because he is an engineer and looks more Sinhala. He accepts an arranged marriage with Visaka, who considers herself above his station. Secretly, Sylvia needs money because the Judge spent all of their savings on renovating their fine home before his death, and having her daughter marry Nishan solves their financial problems. Sylvia had been forced to rent out the upper floor of their home just to survive, and Visaka secretly loves a married Tamil who is renting there named Ravan.

Not knowing about his wife’s true feelings, Nishan moves in downstairs from Ravan. Nishan and Visaka have two daughters, Yasodhara and Luxshmi, who become close with Ravan’s son, Shiva. Everyone is happy despite the rising ethnic hostilities until Mala’s husband is suddenly murdered by a mob, and Nishan and Visaka decide it is too dangerous to stay in Sri Lanka. They say their goodbyes and move to California.

In the second part of the novel we meet Saraswathi. She is Tamil and her family lives in a war-torn area of Sri Lanka where the civil war is inescapable. The family has lost two sons to the war, but there is hope the daughters might become teachers. However, violence rages around them and there is pressure for all the children to join the Tamil Tigers and be trained as child soldiers in the civil war with the Sinhala. Saraswathi is attacked and brutalized by soldiers, and her family cannot overcome their sense of shame at what has happened. Cut off from those emotional bonds, Saraswathi joins the Tamil Tigers and trains, becoming a ruthless killer who revels in her revenge.

At first both Yasodhara and Luxshmi are happy in America and quickly adapt. Yasodhara has a bad romance, and in her depression allows her mother to arrange a traditional marriage for her, but this turns into a loveless disaster. Luxshmi returns to Sri Lanka to be a teacher for children who have been injured in the war, and Yasodhara follows in order to escaper her dull marriage. The sisters find that their homeland is unfamiliar and hostile, broken by war and alien. Saraswathi kills Luxshmi as part of her rebel activities, and shortly after a truce is declared and the war ends, but Yasodhara indulges in a small rebellion by not celebrating the end of war or the victory, but reflecting instead on the tens of thousands of Tamil and Sinhala people who died needlessly during the conflict, and the transformation of Sri Lanka from an untouched natural paradise when her father was a child to the grim, polluted, blood-soaked place it has become after decades of war.