Reviewed by Gail Tsukiyama
In spare, lyrical prose, V. V. Ganeshananthan's debut novel tells the story of two Sri Lankan Tamil families over four generations who, despite civil war and displacement, are irrevocably joined by marriage and tradition. At the heart of the story is American-born Yalini, 22, the only child of Tamil immigrants. Her father eventually becomes a doctor, her mother a teacher; they make their new life in the United States. Even so, Yalini feels bound to "the laws of ancestry and society."
Born during "Black July" of 1983, the beginning of the civil war between the Tamil and Sinhalese, Yalini is haunted by Sri Lanka's political turmoil, caught between the political and social traditions of her ancestors and the modern world in which she lives. She can't forget that in a Sri Lankan family there are only two ways to wed, in an Arranged Marriage or a Love Marriage, even though she knows that "in reality, there is a whole spectrum in between, but most of us spend years running away from the first toward the second."
Uncertain what to do with her life, Yalini takes time off from school and travels to Toronto to help her parents care for her dying Uncle Kumaran, her mother's older brother, who immigrated to Canada. He was once a militant Tamil Tiger rebel who killed many people, including other Tamils, and seeing him brings Yalini face to face with the political strife in Sri Lanka. With him is his 18-year-old daughter, Jenani, who has chosen to marry a Tamil operative in Toronto and continue the struggle for a Sri Lankan separatist state. While Jenani is determined in her beliefs and goals, Yalini still struggles to find her way.
Through conversations with her uncle and parents, Yalini transcribes the many stories of her family and their political allegiances through each generation of marriage. Doing so, she begins to understand the spectrum that fills the void between Arranged Marriage and Love Marriage. She learns of her Uncle Neelan, who espoused the "enemy," a Sinhalese girl who protected him when the Sinhalese-Tamil riots began; of her Great-Aunt Harini, who was abused in a marriage to a "wrong" man; of her Aunt Uma, who was too "special" to get married. Above all, it's her Uncle Kumaran, who found love "under the strain of politics," who helps her see that she can only "cure the future by knowing the past."
Love Marriage covers the decades of these family stories in brief vignettes, a style that can feel fragmented and cause some character confusion. Still, this is a minor complaint about an otherwise powerful story. Ganeshananthan shows us that most of us live in the "whole spectrum in between." While Yalini may or may not find a love marriage, it's in understanding her family history that she's finally free to choose.
Gail Tsukiyama's latest novel, The Street of a Thousand Blossoms (St. Martin's Press), will be out in paperback in August.
Books mentioned in this post