Book Review: Seek the Singing Fish

singing fish

“People could slash and seethe over who owned what chunk of land all they wanted but I understood it wasn’t theirs to begin with”

Seek the Singing Fish, by Roma Wells, tells the story of Artemila De Zilwa, a young Sri Lankan woman who grew up during the years of her country’s civil war. Told from her perspective, the experiences recounted are not for the faint-hearted. She addresses herself to Shi, ‘breath of life’, and describes the traumas she suffered as her ‘twisted voyage’. What we have here is an odyssey shadowed by the appalling cruelties man inflicts, even on his own kind – the commodification and destruction of lives by those seeking control.

Mila has a deep appreciation for and curiosity about the natural world. It is this that sustains through the many and varied aspects of situations inflicted on her. She compartmentalises memories, closing doors on some and opening others for comfort. The knowledge of creatures abilities and habits shared are fascinating – a highlight amidst the disturbing accounts of abuse and tragedy.

A prologue sets the scene for what is to come. Shi is told that Mila has a mangled face, disfigured by shrapnel – ‘I am beauty spoiled; Lanka corrupted.’ The first of the three parts into which the story is divided then covers her childhood.

Mila came from an intelligent and caring family. Her parents married for love, a choice that estranged them from their wider clans. She was closer to her father, an English professor who instilled in his young daughter a love of books and learning. He listened carefully to her and encouraged her interest in wildlife. Her mother favoured Mila’s little brother, Ravi. Both children appreciated the delicious food their mother could conjure from whatever ingredients were available.

The early pages explain the reasons why war raged all around. None were spared from the violence – the tit for tat torture and destruction. Mila’s father would talk to her in metaphors, trying to offer explanations for the madness of the conflict. Both he and his daughter understood that, despite the propaganda, more connected those fighting each other than divided.

“we look for differences in the Vedas, the Quram, the Bible and the Sutras when their ink runs with the same intent. After all, the very word religion means to bind in its Latin origin.”

As with so many in this time and place, grief soon fractures the family, each survivor dealing with the aftermath without support. They are then challenged by the devastation wreaked by a tsunami. The coming together of warring sides to cope and rebuild is short lived. Mila’s eyes are opened to the dark side of nature as well as its beauty.

Mila finds solace with an older friend made at a local market, and in caring for a stray dog. She meets Kai, a young fisherman orphaned and placed in the care of an alcoholic uncle.

“He reminded me of the elephants who’d undergone phajan, the training regimen used to beat and starve them into submission for the tourist industries.”

Their burgeoning love story is schismed by the war.

The second part of the book is set in London and offers yet another seriously disturbing aspect of human behaviour. Mila knows to keep her head down if she is to survive this life but is once again scarred by what she sees happening around her. For a time she works as a cleaner in a wealthy family’s home – invisible to them amidst their sterile surrounds.

“it was all for show; lifeless items to be admired but not touched. A gallery disguised as a house masquerading as a home.”

The third and final part of Mila’s story offers closure of sorts. There are elements of luck – timely coincidence – to achieve this. Nothing is sugar coated but this is, perhaps, the least satisfying of what is a desperately hard hitting account of man’s inhumanity.

Woven throughout the horrific descriptions of abuse are stunningly beautiful evocations of the natural world. Sitting alongside such challenges as living with PTSD, the Sri Lankan lagoons, even the parks of London, become oasis.

The language used to tell this tale is impressively rich but never cloying. Mila never asks for sympathy but rather seeks understanding.  While not always easy to consider man’s behaviour, there is much beauty to be found elsewhere when looked for. This story offers a metaphor for the lives we all must live – a way of coping.

A thought-provoking but always engaging tale interlaced with stunning imagery. For those able and willing to consider the myriad traumas of conflict, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, époque press.

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Book Review: Beautiful Place

“Luck didn’t make you feel lucky. Being saved didn’t make you feel safe.”

This book just didn’t do it for me. It happens. No reader is going to enjoy every title they pick up. Beautiful Place is big – well over five hundred pages – so it was disappointing that my personal reading experience was largely one of frustration. I will try to explain.

The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Padma, a young woman who has returned to the luxurious villa she grew up in with her adoptive father, Gerhardt. In many ways Padma’s upbringing has been typical of the children of wealthy Sri Lankans. She is well educated, although repeatedly failed her university exams. Where Padma differs from her peers is her beginnings. Her birth father, Sunny, sold her to Gerhardt when she was nine years old, fully expecting him to use her in heinous ways. Instead, Gerhardt legally adopted the frightened young girl and treated her as a good father should. He bribed Sunny to stay away.

Gerhardt is an Austrian architect who has built a solid and respected international reputation for his work over many years. He designed the villa in rural Sri Lanka that became Padma’s haven. When she returned from Columbo – where she had been living with Ruth, a long time friend of Gerhardt’s, while attending university – she asked Gerhardt, now living in a nearby property, if she could open rooms within their villa to up-market paying guests. Ever eager to support his beloved daughter, Gerhardt arranged for two small bungalows to be built in the grounds of the villa and offered them to Padma as the basis for her fledgling hospitality business.

Padma’s first guest is a young man named Rohan who is escaping the fallout from a distressing court case. He arrives with a heavy suitcase and an air of guilt and suspicion. From this inauspicious start the pair are drawn together. The villa’s chef, Soma, is unimpressed by Rohan but remains loyal to Gerhardt’s wish that Padma be protected and supported in her venture.

Sunny remains a local hoodlum. His success and influence appear to have increased over the years. He wishes to continue to profit from Padma. Despite her knowledge of his twisted hatred and ingrained greed, she believes herself strong and clever enough to resist his machinations. She agrees to visit her birth parents when told her mother, Leela, is ill.

The setting, Sri Lanka, is key. There are many rich descriptions of its natural beauty. The people, however, are largely grasping and resentful. Parents remain determined to control their offspring and arrange marriages that will not just be socially acceptable but also lucrative for the family. Small business owners take every opportunity to fleece tourists and damage competitors. The lane leading from Padma’s villa is lined by bars and brothels – and the pay by the hour guest houses their clientele frequent. All residents must buy protection in cash or favours. Connections to powerful leaders bring with them impunity.

“Sri Lankans had always fought each other, she argued; peace was not in the Sri Lankan’s nature and the social inclusion he strove for was a Western liberal fantasy.”

Padma brings down trouble on herself by acting foolishly. She is described as attractive in looks and demeanour. Her behaviour too often made little sense. The device of her guest house allows for a rolling cast of characters whose actions and reactions demonstrate the malignancy of control – the desire for power over others – both within families and throughout the country. Parents sow seeds of mistrust and hatred in the younger generation who have been raised to cede to demands made of them – thus secrecy is endemic. The parents, even loving ones, are wary of any signs of independent thinking.

This beautiful country is populated by natives who are riven by their history but joined in their desire to make money from the visiting foreigners whose habits they service yet bitterly resent. Women in particular are depicted as powerless – although they find ways to exert influence amongst family and friends. Each of the characters desires what they regard as others’ freedoms. Love is portrayed as restricting.

I struggled through the first half of the book before momentum finally picked up and the story became more compelling. The final hundred or so pages again lost my interest. For supposedly clever people, the main characters appear to court obvious and avoidable dangers. The denouement was tidy and without schmaltz but felt a long time getting there.

The narrative is lecturing in style as opinions are dissected. Plot threads felt thin and lacking depth – there to enable discourse rather than provide entertainment. As well as frustrating I found the story depressing and will now add Sri Lanka to the list of countries I have no wish to ever visit.

I am perplexed as to why those with the means to leave would choose to stay in such a place. Of course, controlling families who try to guilt trip their offspring exist the world over – while their wishes are tolerated this will not change. Beautiful Place is not a novel that engenders feelings of hope in human attitude or behaviour. My hope is that other readers glean more from this book than I managed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.