Author: Su Dharmapala
Simon & Schuster Australia RRP $32.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Vivid writing and imagery weave together a lush story that envelops readers in warmth, colour and drama in Saree. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Su Dharmapala, and while it was the cover and blurb that initially hooked me, the author’s writing has snagged another reader keen for another book.
Set in Sri Lanka and India, with a side trip to suburban Australia, the novel sews together a number of separate stories using a beautiful saree as the common thread. That is, they seem separate, but careful examination shows the stories are linked through other means, whether through primary and secondary characters, or place. The story begins with Nila, the invisible, “ugly” sister who escapes her family to become a saree maker, embroidering all her feelings of love, hope and devotion into an exquisite saree. It is this saree that touches the lives of several others over nearly three decades: Mahinda, who wants to make silk without killing the silk moths; Pilar, a servant forced to make a terrible choice; Sarojini, a devidasi (Tamil/Hindi meaning handmaidens of the gods) who engages in prostitution and wonders about love; Madhav, a Hindu pundit (like a priest) coming to terms with Australia, a country he feels is “bereft of people, colour and life”; and Marion, a Melbourne doctor, unloved by her parents. Each of the characters yearns for love or peace (or both); each experiences joy and pain; each is transformed by the saree woven by Nila.
The stories are startlingly different in their telling, with the voices ranging from first to third person, changing tense, gender and caste. The story of Pilar, a low-caste servant, is told in present tense, fragmented sentences, and broken English: “I carefully takes saree from her. I pricks my finger. I have good blood. Lots of blood. And we puts blood on her saree. Everywhere. We needs more blood so I pricks my finger again. And I puts more blood on de saree.” It’s a great contrast to all the other voices. Marion’s story, set in 2010, is a first-person, less emotive account. Such differences in the voices could result in a disjointed feel (indeed, it does at times because some of the segues are so abrupt, although that feeling didn’t linger for me), yet somehow Saree pulls together smoothly and the finished result is a richly layered, strongly characterised novel in which many stories become one. I confess I did worry at first when Nila’s story stopped so suddenly, so heart-breakingly … that was a tissues moment, for sure; I wanted to know what happened next – surely her story could not just end there …
Saree also weaves in themes of oppression and freedom, both through the characters and the background of the civil war in Sri Lanka. The latter was of particular interest to me as I knew little about the nature of the war or its causes before reading. Readers more familiar with the situation may think otherwise, but I did not perceive any bias to either Tamils or Sinhalese – the characters were fairly evenly distributed. Prejudice and hate, and tolerance and love was shown by characters on both sides, with many of the main characters expressing sadness at the ongoing situation – as one wisely said:
‘No one will ever know who threw the first stone. It hardly seems to matter now …So many people dead. So many lives destroyed.’ (p530)
Emotive, thought-provoking and tenderly written, Saree is an excellent read and one I will read again. It’s complex in structure, but woven cleverly into a beautiful picture of love, spirituality and humanity.
Available from good bookstores. My copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Bookish treat: Did someone mention a mango lassi?