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Christopher Ondaatji

Brixton Beach

By Roma Tearne

Sri Lanka has been much in the news recently, and the twenty five year-old insurgency has resulted in appalling hardship for both people and economy with more than 80,000 people officially listed as being killed during the conflict.  On 17 May 2009 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE, also known as the Tamil Tigers) finally admitted defeat to the Sri Lankan military.

However, the residue of over a quarter of a century of fighting and three failed peace talks still lingers on and Brixton Beach is a grim reminder of how a horrific civil war can change lives and affect innocent civilians.

Roma Tearne has now completed three novels, Mosquito, Bone China, and Brixton Beach.  They are not strictly speaking a trilogy, in that there is no shared narrative thread and the characters differ between the stories, but as a group they are collectively concerned with the way in which conflict impinges on the individual, on the family, and the ways in which it prompts displacement, from east to west.  Although the three books represent an imaginative voyage, a kind of pilgrimage of self-discovery, the books are clearly autobiographical.  The characters in all three novels have lives blasted by war.  Some of them pick up the pieces successfully and move through a process of psychological accommodation and cultural assimilation as they build new identities in new lands.  Others sadly are less fortunate.  They are never able to bridge the gap between their old lives and their new ones, fall foul of the huge psychic effort involved in such a metamorphosis and become casualties of wars that are often remote in time and place.  All the characters, however, those who survive and those who perish, suffer from a sense of yearning for the world that they have lost.

Miss Tearne, herself the daughter of a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother, used her first novel Mosquito to stress the effects of a long civil war on a family who attempts to live within the crossfire of conflict.  It focuses on the lives of two Sri Lankan figures, a young artist girl and an older male novelist.  They are separated by the struggle between Tamil and Sinhalese on the island and their burgeoning relationship is shattered by events over which they have no control.  Their plight is emblematic of the horrors that have overcome civilians in the concluding months of the bloody events recently enacted in Sri Lanka.  The second novel, Bone China, traced the psychological and material consequences of fleeing that same war and the impact it had on family life.  As the war impacted on their lives the trajectory of each member of the de Silva family is different.  Some abandon hope early.  Some attempt to leave.  The story followed the course of migration and displacement to England and the struggle of emergent generations to integrate and adapt to a new culture.

Thus finally in Brixton Beach Miss Tearne deals with the wider problems created by massive global migration.  The author herself suffered the traumas of civil war in Sri Lanka and came to the United Kingdom when she was a mere ten years old, having witnessed horrific persecution to her family because of her mixed parentage.  However Miss Tearne has found herself a vehicle for assimilating and coming to terms with that disturbance and her writing is vivid with sensory experience contrasting the darkness of war with the greyness of exile.  Lives break apart, then heal, only to be broken again by the force of other cultural disturbances.   In Brixton Beach the individual, and the relationship of individuals, are shaped by factors that lie beyond the struggle of Tamils and Sinhalese.  The springs of violence have shifted from the paradise island of Sri Lanka and are found in a new cultural conflict that has been exported to the British Isles.  In spite of the dark canvas what this brave book celebrates is the ebullience of the human spirit and its resilience to overcome oppressive conditions in a seemingly impossible situation.

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