In 1964, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake so rocked Alaska that it sloshed water out of swimming pools as far away as Texas. So it is in politics, where events distant in time, geography and seeming relevance to our own singular domesticities reverberate down the years and detonate in unexpected places.
“A man had stood in a jungle clearing on the fifth day of May, in 1976,” relates the narrator of Ru Freeman’s fine On Sal Mal Lane, “and he had asked for war. …”
He got it, too – specifically, the quarter-century Sri Lankan civil war that ended only in 2009 and forms the backdrop, distantly at first, then more immediately, to this quietly remarkable novel, which illustrates once again that the best way to capture the enormity of war is to focus on the understated rhythms of peace.
It is 1979, three years after and 200 miles away from that historic call to war, when the Herath family moves into a cul-de-sac in a residential neighbourhood of Colombo, graced at one end by a grove of the sal mal tree for which it is named and at the other by a furiously busy thoroughfare that, no less than the war, will play a transformative role in the lives of the families who live here.
Mr. Herath is a civil servant and therefore just slightly below a deity in the local hierarchy; his wife, a teacher, is relatively open-minded, absolutely strong-willed, imperious in the way of the wealthy and utterly untroubled by doubts as to the rightness of her course, particularly when it comes to her children: brothers Suren, 12, and Nihil, 9, and their sisters Rashmi, 10, and Devi, 7.
The Heraths are Sinhalese-Buddhist, their neighbours, Muslim, Tamil-Hindu, Tamil-Catholic or mixed-race Burgher; they are a human hodgepodge, the families of Sal Mal Lane, polyglot and seemingly unsortable – until we meet them, and the labels dissolve as their personalities come into focus.
Freeman is a Sri Lankan native now living in Philadelphia, but there is something positively Russian in the feel of this book – in its full-bodied evocation of domestic lives – lives of children, no less, that, frankly (and meaning no disrespect to the approximately five billion parents on the planet), should be boring but which, beyond logic and any ability I might have to convey it, draw us in almost hypnotically.
For 300 pages, nothing much happens, and it happens beautifully. The Herath children are the sun around which the families of Sal Mal Lane spin, orbiting a circuit “of hopscotch, cricket, marbles, and catch,” of music lessons, schoolwork and childhood rebellion; it is a communal life so complete in itself, and so luxuriantly portrayed, we almost forgive Mrs. Herath her myopia when she says, “War is for soldiers. We shouldn’t worry. We are simply living our lives.”
Of course, it isn’t true, hasn’t been true at least since the First World War, when the dividing line between the front and the home front was erased once and for all. Outside those lives, Mrs. Herath wants so keenly to keep private, public events are occurring, premonitions of ominousness that find no better expression than Raju’s “Bad things are coming,” and no clearer explanation than Suren’s “… the Tamils killed Sinhalese people. … the Sinhalese people killed Tamil people.”
When 15 Sinhalese soldiers are slain and their bodies brought to Colombo for burial, the city erupts and the residents of Sal Mal Lane barricade themselves in their homes, protecting themselves with barbells, belts, baseball bats and their wits, listening behind shutters while the mobs rampage outside.
“If it were possible to look down from a great distance,” the narrator says, “and see a pattern rather than individual losses, we could say that more people lived than died, more people were saved than were burnt, more friendships endured. But at street level they were all irrevocably damaged …”
Freeman, fortunately, is not interested in patterns, but in the street-level lives whose vitality she so richly conveys. By the end of the novel, the children are only four years older, yet profoundly grown up. “The growing up was this: each of them had moved away from a simpler past, one where nothing that happened beyond Sal Mal Lane had ever seemed to apply to them.” It’s a poignant pleasure watching them get there.
Toronto writer Kathleen Byrne frequently contributes to Globe Books.