I confess to being seduced into reading On Sal Mal Lane (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) by its cover. I am helpless in the face of vibrant blue with bronze highlights. And with the stylized children on the bottom. I couldn’t resist. Look at this here:
The Herath family moves into Sal Mal Lane before civil war breaks out in Sri Lanka. Their beauty and kindness to one and all bewilders and attracts the families in the lane: Old Mr. Niles, confined to his bed and dreadfully bored before Nihil Herath begins coming to talk to him; slow, careful Raju, who is devoted to the youngest daughter, Devi, born on an inauspicious day and thus widely considered to be Doomed; Sonna who is considered a thug but craves the friendship and approval of the Herath children, particularly good-girl Rashmi; his twin sisters Rose and Dolly whose acceptance into the Herath household baffles the close-minded Mrs. Silva down the road. Though Sinhalese live side by side with Tamil, the coming of the war threatens to divide the lane.
Mumsy compared On Sal Mal Lane to a Rumer Godden book, and although I wouldn’t have thought of the comparison on my own, it struck me as a very good one. Like Rumer Godden, Ru Freeman writes about the wrong ideas children get, but doesn’t make fun of them for getting such ideas. She remembers the seriousness of childhood, the way children take adult chatter in a spirit of magical thinking; but also children’s practicality and refusal, sometimes, to accept adult values that are not their own.
In he absence of what she termed concrete information, his mother placed the guitar on top of her almirah. It was a confiscation that was supposed to be honored by virtue of her having said so, but it was one designed to fail by virtue of her children’s joint understanding, unspoken but known, that it was a travesty to deprive their older brother of an instrument that belonged in his hands. That even Rashmi was outraged by the punishment was sufficient validation of their feeling that this was an injustice that could not be tolerated.
“We will take it in turns to get the guitar down from the almirah for Suren,” Rashmi declared.
Freeman’s also wonderful — effortlessly wonderful — at sibling dynamics. After the riots that leave two Tamil houses on Sal Mal Lane burned down, the Heraths wander over to a nearby lane where most of the residents were Tamil. The houses are covered in ash, and there is no sign of people there.
“Where did the people go?” Devi asked for them all.
“The people must have gone before they came,” Nihil said, and they all knew who that they were.
“Were the people saved?” Devi pressed on.
“How would we know?” Suren asked.
“The people were saved,” Rashmi said, deciding for them all on a version of a tale that they could live with. “They left and they took nothing, so they must be safe.”
None of them could know for sure if this was true, whether the inhabitants of Kalyani Avenue, just up the road from theirs, with nobody to speak for them, had survived, whether all of them were hiding in one of the houses into which they had not gone, or crouching in heaps on the floors of the refugee camps they had been told were set up in government buildings and schools and all the places of worship, the temples, mosques, churches, and kovils.
Ru Freeman writes her characters with incredible generosity: a tricky line to walk in some cases, looking for sympathy for unsympathetic characters without lapsing into pathos. Even Sonna, who runs with the Sinhalese gangs that terrorize Tamil households later in the book, is defined by his rebellious wish for the Heraths to become his friends; when he stops Nihil from wandering into the street, and Nihil looks at him with gratitude, he’s heart-wrenchingly desperate for the feeling that he’s a good person. Freeman is brilliant at putting in small, sad details that stop you from regarding anybody as a villain.
My one complaint is that Freeman overwrites to a degree. It feels like a new writer’s problem, like she doesn’t yet know whether she can fully trust her readers to pick up implications unless she spells them out in very long sentences. But it’s a minor gripe in an absolutely lovely book. If I hadn’t read a New York Times review complaining about it, I might never have noticed. Ru Freeman’s great, and I wish her the long and wonderful writing career she probably does not need me to wish her because it’s exactly what is inevitably going to happen.