Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

Island of a thousand mirrorsA review by Nalini Haynes

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is historical fiction: it’s set in the twentieth century and follows the evolution of Sinhala and Tamil families as they experience civil war in Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon). Island of a Thousand Mirrors is also, arguably, Literary fiction with its exquisite poetic language, foreshadowing and exploration of real political strife.

The evolution of idyllic Ceylon is told by Sinhala Yasodhara via her familial elders’ points of view, contrasting with Saraswathi’s story as she evolves into a Tamil Tiger (a freedom fighter or terrorist, depending on your point of view). Munaweera tells a tale of moral ambiguity, saying “It is a war between equally corrupt forces”.

As a tale of civilians caught up in conflict beyond their power to control, Island of a Thousand Mirrors succeeds brilliantly. However, I felt that the original motivations for the Tamil Tigers’ genesis were glossed over. In my experience, nothing is ever that simple; the Leader would not have appeared in a pristine environment. Even Hitler rose to power because of the Great Depression. Middle-class Germany wanted security and restoration of their place in the world after inflation left them in poverty, thus they turned a blind eye to Hitler’s less palatable policies until it was too late. My understanding is that the Tamil people in Sri Lanka genuinely suffered, leading to the uprising; Munaweera seems to have glossed over the roots of the Tamil uprising. However, I am not a historian.

Context is everything. Before I’m accused of bias, I will declare: my name is Nalini. I am of European descent. Born in Malaysia, I was named by a Malay Indian and a Malay Chinese. As I grew up in Australia, I heard about Ceylon-turned-Sri Lanka but my memories are vague; I’m not even certain if my mother was pro- or anti- Tamil Tigers. Australians also have a tendency to side with the underdog unless the fight concerns us directly.

To a certain extent, Island of a Thousand Mirrors tells the story of many of my neighbours who come from war-torn countries like Mauritius, Samoa, Ukraine and even Sri Lanka (note: I don’t know with which people group or religion those neighbours identify).

Part historical fiction, part fictional memoir, part romance, part tragedy, part educational text, Island of a Thousand Mirrors explores the lives and loves of native Sri Lankans, their evolution as refugees or emigrants and the drama of returning home. The mirrors flash, blinding the viewer while also revealing truths. The natives’ souls have been ensnared by the mirrors on their island as is the soul of the reader. Highly recommended.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5 stars
ISBN-13: 9780670077793
ISBN-10: 0670077798
Publisher: Viking (Penguin)
Format: paperback, 256 pages