By Roma Tearne
429 pp. Aardvark Bureau/Gallic Books. $15.95
From the opening scene of her new novel, “Brixton Beach,” Roma Tearne signals that political violence and memory are among her themes. A doctor runs through the streets of central London, navigating the mayhem caused by explosions on Underground trains and a bus, and looking for a woman he knows. No date is given but many readers will recognize the terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005, that killed more than 50 people and injured more than 700. The fictional doctor’s name is Simon Swann.
There will be no further mention of Swann until much later, but the allusion to Proust pervades this fine nostalgic novel. Uneasiness lingers as the author turns to another set of characters in Sri Lanka in 1973, a year after the island nation shed its colonial name, Ceylon.
At the center of the four-generation family story is Alice Fonseka. In this tiny country with complex politics and culture, British influence remains strong, and 9-year-old Alice has been raised on books like “The Wind in the Willows.” Conflict is rising in the north between the Singhalese and Tamil ethnic groups, including disturbing reports of riots and a bomb, but the violence has not yet reached the family in the south.
Alice is more concerned about the imminent birth of a sibling, and the tension between her Singhalese mother, Sita, and Tamil father, Stanley, a stenographer at a factory in Colombo, the capital, that imports fruit for rich Singhalese “who could afford to live like the English.”
Dreamy, stubborn Alice is happiest when staying with her mother’s parents, Bee and Kamala, in a village on the southern coast. Their home, the Sea House, seems a paradise where Alice can play on the beach and take inspiration from her grandfather’s artworks.
Tearne, an accomplished British novelist, artist and filmmaker who was born in Sri Lanka, writes with cleareyed love for the country of her childhood and depicts its lush decay in painterly detail. “The city air smelled of a thousand different things: orange blossom hidden in a secret garden, and drains, and the blistering smell of freshly ground turmeric. There was something else, too, something sweet and metallic, like the smell of fireworks on New Year’s night.”
Tragedy is stark against the beauty. A prejudiced doctor causes Sita’s baby to be stillborn. Bombs explode, and Tamils are shot by the army. Bee and Kamala harbor a wounded man, putting the family at risk. Bee, for all his hatred of racism, dislikes both his son-in-law and the British. Stanley leaves to seek a safer life for his family in London, enjoying a single man’s freedom.
Every character and every relationship is sensitively articulated as a microcosm of society. When Sita and Alice follow Stanley, civil war has ripped Sri Lanka apart and will do so for nearly 30 years, all but ignored by the West. Distressed at losing his daughter and granddaughter, Bee’s “heart was hanging on its hinges,” with worse to come.
Despite its dramatic events, the first half of the book at times seems slow moving. In retrospect it is clear that Tearne has effectively evoked a child’s sense of time and an adult’s languorous memories of childhood.
The narrative picks up pace, as life does, in the second half, years passing in a page, scenes switching from England to Sri Lanka and back. In safe, gray London, Alice is a lonely schoolgirl and then quickly a woman, wife, mother and artist. Traumatized and unsettled, Alice and her mother, now divorced, retreat into memories of their estranged country and family. While Sita descends from depression into dementia, Alice channels her homesickness into her colorful house, which she names Brixton Beach, and her sculptures, which Tearne imagines with precise ingenuity. As the story comes full circle, hope, love and history collide with an unsparing force that resonates into the contemporary world.