Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sri Lanka: "Bone China" by Roma Tearne

This book, Bone China, has been in the TBR stack for some time, because long-time friends lived in Sri Lanka before I met them. Their stories piqued my interest in the country; I bought the book on sale a few years ago and have been keeping it for the right mood to read.  No more excuses!

The author writes about a family from 1939, when the island of Ceylon was part of the British Empire, through the 1990s, decades after the establishment of Sri Lanka. At least one theme is the role of women in shaping a family's destiny. This role is handed on from mother, to daughter-in-law, to granddaughter, and eventually to great-granddaughter, just as the the mother's exquisite china collection, which she has inherited, is carefully (mostly) preserved for future generations.

The de Silvas are a high-caste, Catholic Tamil family with connections to the British administration.The parents and five children start out in an elegant home in the midst of tea plantations in the hills. The family endures ever-declining fortunes as the father gambles away his wife's property, the nation obtains independence from Britain in 1949, and riots and murders begin, marking the start of civil strife between ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese. First the family moves to the capital, Colombo, and then individual members emigrate, some to England, one to Venice. All of the characters are extremely well-drawn, even a mynah bird that offers a multi-voiced Greek chorus to the family's life.

As an example of Tearne's prose, consider these three journeys home from school.  First, September 1, 1939, two boys, ages 15 and 13, leave their British-style day school in the hills.

"The long fingers of sun shone pink and low in the sky as they left the driveway of Greenwood for the very last time. Rain had fallen earlier, dampening the ground on this ordinary afternoon, one so like the others, in their gentle upcountry childhood. The air across the valley was filled with the pungent scent of tea, rising steeply as far as the eye could see. In the distance the sound of the factory chute rattled on, endlessly processing, mixing and moving in time to the roar of the waterfall. The two boys wondered on, past the lake brimming with an abundance of water lilies, past clouds of cream butterflies, and through the height of the afternoon, their voices echoed far into the distance" (p. 24).

In the early 1960s, the wife of one of those boys, shortly after settling in Brixton, remembers fetching her grammar-school aged daughter from school back in Sri Lanka the prior year.

"They would walk towards the station...Meeka begging for some ambarella, or mango rolled in chili power and salt,,.the the train would begin to move and there below them, a little way from the rocks, would be the sea. Miles and miles of endless golden sand, miles and miles of blistering beach. Only mad dogs would be out on it. And the sea would swish and the cold breeze would waft in through the carriage...." (p 208)

Finally, a description of Meeka's journey home, a young adolescent in London, a "latch-key child," as we'd say.

"[She] joined forces with Gillian and Susan and Jennifer, and roamed the streets of London whenever she could. It was 1966...They walked along the embankment eating ice creams, and they ran amok in the British Museum. All in all they had a wonderful time. It was in this way that Anna-Meeka began to understand the city, this adopted home of hers...The smell of the Underground soot and the sight of the river from the top of a double-decker bus were part and parcel of her life now. Sri Lanka was nothing to do with her. It belonged in some other life" 
(p. 263)

The last section of the book focuses on Meeka, now around 40, with an 18-year old daughter and a life filled with music, a lush garden, and growing friendships. Sri Lanka is still gripped by the civil war. but she begins to think about a visit as going home. One hopes she makes it there and that the sea and the clear tropical skies bring the sense of completion she seeks.

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