Sunday, September 9, 2007

Not Enough Buzz

This appeared, in a slightly edited form, in the September 7 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

MOSQUITO Roma Tearne

“Life in this paradise, he felt, was exactly as the beautiful mosquito that lived here, composed in equal parts of loveliness and deadliness.” Those are the thoughts of Theo, one of the protagonists of Mosquito, Roma Tearne’s debut novel that delineates the impact of Sri Lanka’s “loveliness and deadliness” during the late 1990s.

Theo, a successful novelist in his forties, has returned from London to the torn island of his birth after the demise of his Italian wife. Settling in a backwater near Colombo to work on his next novel, he encounters Nulani, an incipient artist in her teens. They strike up an unlikely friendship, one that deepens into love. Meanwhile, ethnic violence simmers below the surface like magma, erupting to the surface to incinerate bonds. Despite their careful plans, Theo and Nulani are sundered, and re-uniting seems a distant dream. It’s a face-off between the quest for power and the quest for love.

Tearne has a painterly eye, and many of her descriptions are evocative and well done. The action of the sea upon the shore, the effect of sunlight on an interior and the subject-matter of Nulani’s canvases, among others, are strikingly portrayed. Such prose, coupled with a fast-moving narrative, renders Mosquito appealing.

Unfortunately, there are puzzling flaws, too. Some characters, whom the author has taken pains to build up, are all-too conveniently disposed of halfway through, while others come to the fore only later. The plot itself, vigorous though it is, progresses through a series of zigzags that, after a while, stretch plausibility. And though Tearne is even-handed when it comes to the conflict, her central characters share an idealistic worldview that borders on the naïve.

Like many of her contemporary Sri Lankans writing in English – such as Michael Ondaatje and Romesh Gunesekera – Tearne has a poised, poetic sensibility that is pained by the violence that has racked their homeland. If only this was enough to make up for her novel’s inconsistencies.

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