November 9, 2013 12:50:48 am
Author: Roshi Fernando
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Immigrant fiction is an established publishing genre,made so by a stable of celebrity writers,mainly from the Asian and African diaspora. They are too numerous to list but two of the more famous representatives,Jhumpa Lahiri and NoViolet Bulawayo,figured in this years ManBooker shortlist. We have reason to walk down the immigrant brick lane once again with Roshi Fernandos debut novel,Homesick. A series of interconnected stories about an extended Sri Lankan family struggling to adapt to their adopted home in London without letting go of the past,it is a densely populated and charming literary effort. Its a dilemma faced by many immigrant families in London,especially south Asians,and Fernando,the London-born daughter of immigrant parents,captures the angst well. In the last couple of years,she has been hailed in British literary circles as a writer to watch out for,based on her short stories. The build-up was well deserved but its the structure of her first novel that raises some question marks.
Families coping with the collision of the past and the future has been a rich source of fiction and this one certainly complements that genre. Homesick introduces us to characters,young and old,lonely and disturbed,single and married,but all suffering from degrees of homesickness while being equally sick of home in a war-ravaged Sri Lanka. The diverse characters and their individual issues can be difficult to keep track of and the only literary anchor is Preethi,daughter of Rohan and Nandini,as she battles through various stages of her immigrant life. The title story,Homesick,is where we meet most of the characters,at a New Years celebration in Victor and Nandinis home. It is 1983,a year of excessive bloodshed in Sri Lanka,and it becomes the invisible thread that runs through the novel,especially towards the end when Preethi returns to the country her parents left,to the war zone controlled by the LTTE,and returns with no closure concerning her roots,still scarred from the hellish experience,weary,and on the edge of alcoholism.
Fernando brilliantly captures the Sri Lankan diaspora through a rotating cast of characters,immigrants,or children of immigrants,British residents,most of whom are outliers,always out of place. The food,the mix of cultures,the music,the Sri Lankan phrases encapsulates the immigrant experience with verve and authority. Where it weakens is when the focus shifts away from Preethi. Her story takes up most of the book and her voyage of self-discovery is a powerful hook. It starts with Sophocless Chorus,where a youthful Preethi is slowly embracing her sexual and intellectual powers,but the promise doesnt last,which is the main problem with this book. When read as a series of short stories,it is elevating and tender and funny. As a novel,it somehow doesnt hang together,just like Preethi everything she does or starts remains unfinished and unresolved.
Indeed,the stories in the first half of the book have an unfinished feel. Fernando introduces a character while theyre in the midst of change,and then drops them. They are mostly Preethis relatives or siblings and some of the stories The Fluorescent Jacket,for instance really stand out,but in the second half of the book,the angst and struggles become too tidy and neat,almost predictable.
Research,Test,and The Terrorists Foster Grandmother,are in stark contrast to the first half,seemingly contrived and emotionally rounded,as if compensating for the earlier rawness. Despite that,Fernando is intelligent enough to mix emotion and appeal with the unexpected.
What holds the disparate characters together is the concept of home. In this melange of immigrants,the concept becomes complex and tortured. As Preethi says:Nowhere is home,nowhere! And it makes me so angry! The stories in Homesick,like many of the individuals it features, have an uneven feel,but Fernando has the ability to create intriguing characters. What we get is an explosion of identities and issues,some appealing,others quite revolting,but at its heart,this is a novel about the unpredictability of human behaviour and the immigrants yearning to belong,conflicted by unavoidable racism. To her credit,Fernando does give us insight,sensitivity and a unique style,half-novel,half-short-story collection,which is edgy enough to make her stand out in the crowd of immigrant fiction writers.
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