In the city, the sea sighs, bombs explode, relatives visit, Schubert is played. Violence makes all fragile, giving celebrations a manic edge, and secret lives are lived in crowded families. Grace’s adultery, her evil cousin’s machinations, and the antics of Jasper the omniscient mynah create a nicely bubbling broth. Music anchors the plot and sometimes, single evocative images capture great events.
But the civil war intensifies, killing several characters and driving others to Britain. If only Big Political Questions weren’t thought indispensable for the ‘serious’ post-colonial novel! As family and country unravel, so does the book. The migrant’s disillusionment and isolation, portrayed so memorably in (for example) J.M. Coetzee’s Youth, are reduced here to platitudes. Maudlin exile moments drip and drop into a deepening sea of syrup. New characters relentlessly continue appearing, old ones pop in and out like a clock’s cuckoo. The novel degenerates into a chronicle listing divorces, deaths, births, marriages.
The second half rests on the pretty shoulders of Sri Lanka-born, London-bred Anna-Meeka, whose cuteness sets on edge whatever remains of our now-grinding teeth. Will this wild child reconcile East and West through her music and beauty? Will this living symbol of diasporic dilemmas find happiness? We are too exhausted to care.