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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
From the winner of the 2009 Impress Prize for New Writers (U.K.) and finalist for the Sunday Times Short Story Award, a stunning debut novel about an extended Sri Lankan family - a kaleidoscopic view of contemporary immigrant life, by turns darkly funny, sad, poignant, and uproariously beautiful.
It's New Year's Eve 1982. At Victor and Nandini's home in southeast London, the family and their friends gather to ring in the new year. Whiskey and arrack have been poured, poppadoms are freshly fried, and baila music is on the stereo. Upstairs, the teenagers have gathered around the television to watch The Godfather again while drinking pilfered wine. Moving back and forth in time, from the 1970s to the present day, and from London to Sri Lanka and back again, we follow Victor and Nandini's children: Rohan, Gehan, and in particular dyslexic Preethi - funny, brash, and ultimately fragile. We also meet troubled Lolly and her beautiful sister Deirdre; wonderful Auntie Gertie; and terrible Kumar, whose dark deed will haunt the family.
Victor is thinking of other parties, of his childhood: quiet, dignified, the productions of an excitable wife of a dour clergyman. Homemade marshmallows, he remembers, lightly coloured with cochineal, dusted with icing sugar. He stands in the hallway of his own home in southeast London, looking at the late afternoon sun colouring everything with a honey glaze. My, he thinks, he can even see his own pudgy hand, reaching up to the table to steal a sweet, and a servant clucking away behind him, shoo-shooing him, as if he were an escaped hen. If his father had seen him, there would have been the nasty, damning words about thieves, about hell. He hears Preethi and Nandini in the kitchen, the pan lids banging, the murmured voices, one of them chopping at the table, a small laughter. I am rich, he thinks.
He walks into the sitting room, adjusts cushions on the plush cream sofas, a recent investment. The plastic covers have been removed for this evening but will go back tomorrow: Nandini said that, once bought, this three-piece suite would be their last. It must survive thirty years, then, he thinks, for we are so young still, barely fifty. The sun is setting. He stands by the window, looking out to the opposite houses. Already there is music from the end of the street: West Indians, their party will be raucous. Never mind, never mind. He takes his C. T. Fernando record out of its sleeve, holds it carefully by the edges, blowing the dust away gently into the last pink rays of the sunshine. When he places the needle onto the crack-crack of the grooves, he can smell poppadoms frying, he can feel the warmth of other air, he can hear the voices of people long left behind. And Victor's eyes fill with tears, for there is no going back in his life, only the moving forward to better things. There is only the climb up steep green hills that signify this Britain. He sits gingerly on the sofa as if he were the guest and the sofa the host. "Ma Bala Kale," C. T. sings, and Victor hums along, remembering that the poppadoms will not be fried until the evening.
Preethi is angry. Nandini is again talking of money, of wasted opportunities. She is talking about resolutions, and Preethi is tired of saying - yes, Ammi, I will work harder, I will forget that under this skin there is me. She wants to say - you know I'm slow, I'm not like Rohan and Gehan, I just can't do what you want me to do. But she changes the subject. Talks about Clare, her friend from school, coming to the party.
"She's got the whole of Brideshead on video. Sometimes we watch two episodes-"
"Watch? But I thought you studied together?"
"Yes. We do. But sometimes we take a break and watch - and it is by Evelyn Waugh. And you used to watch it with me." Which wasn't true, she thought - Ammi was always asleep on the sofa.
They are silent.
"So, who is coming tonight, Ammi?"
"Wesley and Siro. This one, Gertie - she is bringing that foster child of hers. And her brother. He's done very well. He is here attending Sandhurst."
"What? For the army? Which army?"
"The Sri Lankan army, fool."
Preethi pauses for effect. "The Sri Lankan army who like to repress and murder Tamil people. You know, Tamil people like me and Dad?"
"Don't be clever-clever. We left that behind, all that talk. You're in England. Talk of English politics. How can you understand Sri Lanka? It is not ours to understand anymore."
"That's rubbish," she starts, but her mother slaps her hand. It stings.
"Don't say 'rubbish' to me. Do you think I would have said 'rubbish' to my mother?"
Preethi washes her hands and, wiping them on her backside, edges around her mother's chair in order to leave.
"Where are you going? Come and chop the rest of these onions, then peel the carrots and grate them."
Excerpted from Homesick by Roshi Fernando. Copyright © 2012 by Roshi Fernando. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The immigrant experience has always been ripe territory for literature, but one must proceed with caution. It is easy for writers to get overly sentimental when nostalgia takes hold, and clichés often dominate romanticized narratives. Fortunately, the immensely talented Roshi Fernando avoids these traps in her spectacular debut, Homesick, which chronicles the Sri Lankan immigrant experience in England.
Although this book is really a collection of tightly interconnected short stories, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to call it a novel. And while each chapter or story stands on its own, it does help the narrative to read the book from beginning to end without jumps. The opening story, Homesick, sets the stage by introducing the principal characters who reappear as the book progresses. Primary among these is Preethi, who, as the story opens, is a teenager getting her first taste of rebellion at a family party hosted by her father. With many characters moving in and out, this first story is a tad confusing and awkward in its execution, but persistence pays. Fernando quickly finds her groove, and the rest of the book is close to flawless.
Fernando does a fantastic job of capturing the isolation and displacement that are an essential part of the immigrant experience. Her strength lies in her ability to portray keen insights with the slightest touch. She doesn't need any grand drama to bring out vulnerabilities in her characters. Instead, small details pack a strong punch and drive home her message just as effectively. In one of many superbly eloquent chapters, a Sri Lankan nanny gets lost while on the way to dropping Preethi off at school. The houses and the streets all look similar, not distinct and unique as they might have in Sri Lanka. The fear gets compounded when they chance upon a white woman, and the nanny doesn't know how to ask for help. Instead she pushes her little charge, Preethi, forward hoping the young one will make the case for the two of them. Vignettes like these bring to mind another great chronicler of the immigrant narrative, Jhumpa Lahiri. Just like Lahiri, Fernando uses her keen observation skills to craft touching and powerful stories.
My favorite sketch in Homesick is "Sophocles' Chorus," in which Preethi goes through the blush of first love. The giddiness, the letdown, the disillusionment and the eventual embrace of reality are all so brilliantly executed by Fernando that it is hard to believe this is her debut novel.
Where Homesick falters is in its story of a young Muslim immigrant who embraces less than desirable outcomes as a way out of an oppressive childhood. His eventual path back to normalcy involves one too many neat coincidences, and the story seems a tad contrived. Toward the end of the book, Preethi visits Sri Lanka and somehow manages to get involved in the country's civil war. This part too feels out of place; it's as if Fernando felt the compulsion to address the weighty theme in some way and couldn't quite manage a better fit. She is much better when she uses a light touch in showing cultural mores that are completely Sri Lankan. Descriptions of an immigrant man's love for his cricket team and glimpses of a Sri Lankan wedding in England say much more about the country than more dense themes do.
In the end, Homesick emerges as a moving and powerful novel about Sri Lankans in England. In showcasing her characters' everyday anxieties and triumphs, Fernando effectively portrays a slice of humanity we can all - immigrants or not - identify with readily. It is this empathy that Fernando manages to elicit from her readers and that makes Homesick such a compelling, triumphant debut.
Reviewed by Poornima Apte
In Homesick, Victor, a Sri Lankan immigrant to England, views his native country's cricket team as his own. He owes allegiance to them and takes pride in their successes. Roshi Fernando uses this sport as a metaphor for her character's desire to break free of colonial ties.
The game of cricket is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a game played with a ball and bat by two sides of usually 11 players each on a large field centering upon two wickets each defended by a batsman." Possibly an ancestor of American baseball, the sport plays somewhat similarly. One person, called the "bowler," pitches (or "delivers") a hard leather ball down a 22-yard-long strip of dirt (called the "pitch") toward the other team's batter who is protecting his team's wicket from being hit by the ball. The batter defends the wicket by hitting the ball with a flat wooden bat, and he then tries to score as many runs as possible. Meanwhile, the pitching team members field the hit ball and attempt to get the batter out before he's able to run to the other side of the pitch. (For more information on the official rules, visit the International Cricket Council website.)
First played in England in the 1500s, cricket spread through British colonial territories in the 1800s, and the English initially used the game as a way of delineating clear boundaries between the rulers and the ruled. According to the International Slavery Museum,
"Cricket was watched only by 'highly respectable ladies and gentlemen', while the plantation owners prepared the cricket field and provided the hospitality... Cricket was taught in missionary schools in order to impart English values to the indigenous people." However, over time, slaves came to make the sport their own, and it shed its roots as a tool for setting social boundaries. Along the way, the game became deeply symbolic of people trying to free themselves from oppression.
As in Homesick, cricket's use as metaphor is apparent in the immensely popular Bollywood film, Lagaan (2001). The movie won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and enjoyed a cult following in the United States. In it, Indian farmers rebel against a "lagaan" - a tax imposed by the British overlords. Looking to break the yoke, they agree to a game of cricket as the deciding factor. If the Indian villagers win, there will be no tax, if they lose the tax will be tripled. The roaring success of this movie in India and beyond likely validates that many still use the game as an equalizer, especially in places where colonial wounds may remain raw.
For more information and images, check out my Pinterest board for Homesick or read the BBC article entitled "Cricket and the Abolition of Slavery." You can also click on the video below to watch the trailer for Lagaan:
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