Excerpt from Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors

by Nayomi Munaweera

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera X
Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 224 pages
    Jan 2016, 256 pages


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Those less fortunate eat dried fish while the truly destitute fight with the spiny shells of crabs or lobsters. Decades later, my father will find it incomprehensible that Americans crave what in his childhood was considered repugnant fare. He will look at seafood menus with wonder and shake his head at the truly inexplicable nature of human beings.

One midnight, the singing of bullfrogs is shattered by human pandemonium. Shouting men burst into the house. They grasp a young fisherman by the arms and legs like a heavy sack of rice, heave him onto the Doctor's table where he writhes and sobs. The family, torn from sleep, witnesses the great, medieval lance skewering the boy's kneecap. The beak of a swordfish, the fishermen say. They had hooked the fish, were reeling it in, when it turned and pierced through the wood and knee as cleanly as if it had aimed exactly for this place. They had to saw through the thing's beak to free him while it smashed itself against the catamaran over and over again. One amputation is rewarded by another. The Doctor must saw through flesh and break through bone by the light of a spluttering kerosene lamp. Outside the window, the entire village gathers, an agitated anthill.

Afterward, the fisherman is kept in the dispensary, battling infection, drifting between throbbing pain and dreams of the sea. His name is Seeni Banda and it is Nishan's job to feed him and accompany him to the out house. In later years, Seeni Banda will acquire his lifelong companion, the three- legged dog, Kalu Balla, who unlike so many of her four- legged colleagues survives the quiet morning train, losing only a leg to the Doctor's merciful knife.

For Beatrice Muriel, marriage has not been the pleasant idyll she had been brought up to expect. In an astonishingly short time, the pleasant softness of her body melts away, corroded by relentless sun, salt air, and marital dissatisfaction. Overnight she becomes gaunt, her nostrils pinched, her gaze sharp as knives. She develops the schoolteacher's uncanny ability to detect and subdue childish mischief. Nishan must watch his friends being sent to squat at the back of the schoolroom, arms crossed to grasp opposite ears. As they walk home together, these boys say, "Aiyo, she has two eyes in the back of her head." And only filial devotion keeps him from replying, "Machang, you should see her at home."

Because marital disappointment has bred maternal ambition, Beatrice Muriel dreams of the day her son will enter university and reverse the legacy of a father who is content in daydreams and beach wanderings. Daily, she squats over the open flame, her sari pulled up between her knees, and cooks. Into the fish curry she stirs coconut milk and heady perseverance. Into the sambal, she mixes red onion, green chili, and expectation. Under her breath she mutters invocations to protect her son from asvaha, the poisonous darts of envy thrown by the gaze of those with less illustrious sons.

The days of ocean diving, octopus communing, sand- covered sleep become rare. He spends all his time over books that she has gathered. Head bent over the small pool of light that falls from the lantern, he struggles to memorize English poems and mathematical equations, trace winding Sinhala hieroglyphs. His mother sits by him, her fingers quick with needle and thread. She will not go to sleep until he has finished.

And now leaving Nishan struggling over his books in the seaside village, we journey northward into the smoky realms of Colombo. Just sixty miles away but a world apart. This is the humid and pulsating capital city where the crowd spills over the pavements and onto the belching buses that swerve around bullock carts, and every language and every god of the island is in attendance over the multitudes. Here, where Galle Road reigns supreme connecting the city to the island and giving way to the quiet residential streets, here on one of those quiet and leafy lanes in the private ward of an exclusive nursing home, Nishan's wife-to-be and subsequently my mother-to-be, Visaka Jayarathna, is busy getting herself born.

Excerpted from Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. Copyright © 2014 by Nayomi Munaweera. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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