* Prices may differ from that shown
~Life, Death, War and Destruction~
Roma Tearne's first novel 'Mosquito' is a beautiful tale of lost souls in search of one another set against the backdrop of the long-running civil war in Sri Lanka. She takes characters from different sides of the conflict, as well as characters oblivious to the conflict, throws them all together and leaves us to watch the sparks fly.
Theo Samarajeeva is a writer who has lived abroad for many years before returning to make his home in his native country. He's internationally famous for his book 'Tiger Lily', a deeply dark story set in the conflict but sympathetic to the Tamil minority. Theo is a man of the world who thinks that religion doesn't really matter but whilst it might not matter to him, it certainly matters to those around him. He's a Singhalese, considered a traitor by many of his Buddhist countrymen and an object of curiosity to their Tamil opponents.
As 'Mosquito' opens, Theo is returning to the house he owned many years before. Professionally he's a success with his books available world wide and with 'Tiger Lily' made into an acclaimed film but Theo has lost the only thing that mattered to him, his wife Anna. He hopes that returning to his beach house will help him find the peace that eludes him in Europe. On arrival he meets a local man, Sugi, who becomes his housekeeper and friend. Sugi warns him to take care, not to walk on the beach after curfew, not to draw attention to himself, but Theo doesn't take advice.
Theo has nothing to lose and not much to live for until a local girl, Nulani Mendis, starts to hang about in his garden, hiding in the bushes and drawing Theo. The two become friends and he admires her talent, commissioning her to paint his picture, taking her to meet his artist friend, Rohan, and his Italian wife Guilia, hoping that Rohan can help Nulani develop her talent.
Nulani's father is dead, killed by the conflict, burnt alive on a roundabout. Her mother ignores her, giving all her love and attention to Nulani's brother Lucky Jim. There's a shady uncle in the background, hovering as a dark but undisclosed threat. A local boy, a Tamil orphan whose family were slaughtered by the government soldiers, has his eye on Nulani, unaware of her growing affection for Theo.
As Theo starts to realise that the difference in his and Nulani's ages might not be a barrier to the love that can redeem both their losses and pain, the two are torn apart. Finding the danger of life in Colombo unacceptable, Rohan and Guilia flee the conflict, trying to make a home in Venice. They lose contact with Nulani, she can't find them and everyone thinks that Theo is dead. Even Rohan and Guilia start to lose each other despite being together. Spread around the world, can they ever find each other again?
This is a tale of the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era, one which reminds us how easy it once was to lose people and how hard it seems to be these days. The sense of fate playing with the key characters, putting obstacles in their path, finding ways to throw them back together again, is almost like a Greek tragedy.
~Here's the buzzzzz~
'Mosquito' is not only a desperately moving love story, it's also a fascinating examination of the violence and abuse of the long-running Sri Lankan civil war. Somehow this conflict managed to stay not exactly off the world's radar screen but certainly only blipping away at the edge of that screen for most of its 26 year history. It's the age old story - no oil, no interest - and it's hard to believe looking back how long it lasted and how violent it was. Through much of the war tourism carried on almost as if nothing was happening and I was there myself on holiday in 1997 - almost exactly half way through the conflict. Outside of the far north and Colombo, tourist life went on almost as though the country hadn't a care in the world. The only concession to the violence was that one of our camp sights was a bit further south than had originally been intended. The millions of tourists who lay on the beach, visited giant Buddha statues and holy trees and climbed the island's famous Sigirya rock were largely oblivious to the racial and religious conflict which killed up to 100,000 people. I very much appreciated the insights into the war which 'Mosquito' offered and was shocked and horrified by the extremes of the killing and torture.
~A Tearne for the Better~
Roma Tearne was an artist before she became a writer and perhaps that's why one of the most outstanding aspects of the book is the way she writes about painting. There's a gorgeous and detailed description of one of Nulani's paintings of Theo which is so clear that the reader can't help but picture the portrait in every little detail despite never seeing it. I can only guess that both Theo the writer and Nulani the painter are different aspects of Tearne herself.
They say you should write what you know and Tearne writes about Sri Lankan refugees. As a young child, she left Sri Lanka with her parents back in the 1960s. The first of her books that I read was 'Brixton Beach', a book with a female refugee setting up home in London and a story which would prove beyond all possible doubt that Tearne is willing to slaughter her characters regardless of how many pages her readers have invested in getting to know them. Her other novels - based on a quick scan of the Amazon synopses - all involve characters who've left Sri Lanka. I can't help thinking I should be shaking my head and writing "Here we go again" but after finishing 'Mosquito' I just want more.
Tearne does gut-wrenching shock as well or better than any other writer I can think of. Twice in the final chapters I felt a physical shiver go through me when astonishing things happened after hundreds of pages of despair. Tearne builds up characters who become so real to us that we really care about them but she's not afraid to cut some of them down in their prime and leave us bereaved by their loss. You think that only the minor characters can suffer and die but she's an equal opportunity dispenser of death and destruction. Whether it's natural death from malaria, targeted death by shooting or burning alive or the random destruction of an unwitting bomber, she pulls no punches in distributing devastation.
For those who need to understand the reason why the book is called 'Mosquito', these little killers crop up many times in the book. The most dangerous animal in the world is not the Great White Shark, a nasty big snake with fangs, a raging bull elephant or a short-sighted hippo - it's a tiny little insect that transmits a killer disease. Whilst the war ebbs and flows, malaria is always in the background as a threat. But the passage that makes you really stop and think is when she describes the new mosquitos - women suicide bombers from the north, buzzing down to Colombo to kill themselves and take others with them.
I enjoyed Brixton Beach, I loved Mosquito and I'm off to check out second-hand copies of the rest of her books. I've been bitten by the Roma Tearne bug but luckily all I've got is a raging thirst for more books and not a killer disease.
Published by Harper Collins
(The edition described above includes some extras - interviews, insights, photos of some of Tearne's paintings and suggestions on other books the reader may enjoy).