Allow me to start with the simple end: Ru Freeman‘s On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. I’ll even embellish that verdict and add that it is actually fan-huththa-tastic... the tmetic meaning of which should encourage you to go get your own copy and check the “glossary” at book’s end. You’ll surely find some choice vocabulary there to aptly describe your own reading experience.
As in Freeman’s absorbing 2009 debut, A Disobedient Girl, the intricate lives of young children take center stage in On Sal Mal Lane. In 1979, the titular Sal Mal Lane is a small cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s largest city and former capital, Colombo; in spite of the diverse households, the residents live in relative peace. If they are not exactly friendly, then they certainly live as tolerant neighbors one and all. The Herath family of two parents, four young children – Suren the musician, Rashmi the singer, Nihil the cricketer, and baby Devi the favored – and their servant move into the quiet enclave, reshuffling friendships and alliances throughout the lane.
The Heraths are educated and cultured, and their four children, whose ages range from 7-and-a-half-year-old Devi to 12-year-old Suren, “were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane.” In addition to each being neat and clean, well-mannered and talented, their devotion to one another – “the way they stood together even when they were apart … every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together” – is a gift to behold.
Even as the Heraths’ lives intertwine with that of their neighbors, beyond the safety of their small street, the rest of the country is at an impasse. Ethnic, religious, and political differences among a population with a long history of divisions, colonizations, and suppressions foment through the years, leading up to a coming civil war that will break out in 1983 and last over a quarter-century. “Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened … the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese, both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades … And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”
Freeman surely doesn’t disappoint. As she unwinds what happened – with prose both lingering and breathtaking – the children, even the lane’s bully who could have been different with just the occasional kindness, will charm you, tease you, play with you, and when they leave you, they’ll shatter your heart. “To tell a story about divergent lives, the storyteller must be everything and nothing,” Freeman’s prologue concludes. “If at times you detect some subtle preferences, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love.”
What possessed you to write this novel? How did it come about?
First, I had been a little down about a magazine piece that did not work out. [The article] had to do with the end of the war [the Sri Lankan Civil War – July 23, 1983, to May 18, 2009], and the editor wanted a very pared-down story with easily identifiable villains and saints. I wanted to write a more nuanced story. Second, I didn’t set out to write this novel, in particular. I was just dabbling with this and that, sketching out some anecdotal bits about growing up down a lane like this one. It was one of my brothers, Malinda, who nudged me down this road. He started chatting back with me – via Google Chat – reminiscing about that time and there it was – the novel I wanted to write. This story that was the one I had been trying to put into that magazine article, the one that was not easy but faceted and brittle and gentle and layered. [… click here for more]
Author interview: “Feature: An Interview with Ru Freeman,” Bookslut.com, May 2013