Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane does not whittle war down to statistics or gory clashes; instead, it provokes deeper discussion of its manifestations and complexities by chronicling the lives of ordinary citizens living in pre-war Sri Lanka, a not-so-ordinary political climate. Be sure to keep a box of tissues handy: it’s the kind of book that makes your heart sink with every turn of the page, continually transforming your perspective on true love and loss.
The novel begins in 1979, when the Heraths, a well-to-do Sinhalese family, move to the small and quiet Sal Mal Lane in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sal Mal Lane is no typical street, but a cross-section of the Sri Lankan population itself: some families are Tamil, some are Sinhalese, and some are Burgher, practicing all religions and representing various socieconomic strata. Though the neighbors are quite acquainted with one another, it’s the kind-hearted, talented, and tight-knit Herath children who catalyze interactions between the families on the lane, softening even the toughest personalities. But the political turmoil that soon seizes Sri Lanka disrupts this newfound harmony, putting familial and neighborly relationships to the test.
On Sal Mal Lane, to put it simply, is beautifully composed. It’s strung together by numerous vignettes that effectively shift from one character to another, which is not always easy to achieve especially with a book that boasts so many multifaceted personalities. The novel progresses in a true-to-life fashion: the beginning drags on as awkward introductions between new neighbors abound, but as the characters grow more comfortable with one another, the story picks up much speed. Though Freeman’s heavy use of foreshadowing may seem alarming at first, the novel takes so many unexpected turns that it proves to be more reinforcing than revealing.
Freeman deserves much praise for the amount of painstaking research that obviously went into this novel, both personal and factual. As civil war tensions seep into the minds and hearts of those living on the lane, I found myself longing for the comforting presence of steaming cups of tea, the scrapes and bruises earned from enduring cricket matches, and the sweet smiles and giggles innocently exchanged between the children that she describes so richly at the beginning of the novel. Additionally, she relays historical facts with such clarity and so evenly throughout the novel that they integrate fluidly into the narrative.
Growing up is tough, as Freeman so aptly reveals, but the truth of the matter is, we never stop growing. The real heroes of this novel are the children of Sal Mal Lane, who recognize this so clearly. But their maturation is clouded by the weighty opinions of their parents. Freeman delicately captures intergenerational tensions to emphasize both the parents’ and children’s perspectives and reveal how the parents, many of whose first names are rarely even mentioned, affect their children’s unbounded innocence and development with their often skewed outlooks on life. This creates confusion for some of the young characters, whose aspirations are often at odds with parental expectations.
At the heart of this novel is the notion that we must not be victims of our circumstances; rather, we must create our own circumstances. This comes through a conversation between an old Tamil man and a young Sinhalese boy (one of many pairs of unlikely friends on Sal Mal Lane): “People do not go to war, Nihil, they carry war inside them…The thing to think about is do you and I have war inside us?” (222). War is not just fought between armies, as the characters on Sal Mal Lane choose to believe, but it’s fought in the home, at school, and at work. In fact, every character in On Sal Mal Lane is at war with himself or herself in some way. Some of the characters choose to overcome their strife and try to live their lives as best as they can, while others fall prey to violence and hatred. Life gives these characters multiple chances for them to redeem themselves, but, sadly, only few seize these opportunities.
On Sal Mal Lane is neither pro-Sinhala nor pro-Tamil. It accepts all of humanity, including its achievements and its shortcomings, with equal weight. As we know, war does not appear out of thin air; it slowly builds up with time. On Sal Mal Lane teaches us that it does not matter the situation we are in, then, but the way that we handle our situation that is of primary importance. Sometimes we must let go of the things and the people we love the most and accept those that we are unsure of in order to achieve peace. With this, Freeman teaches us, sometimes it only takes a village to inspire hope for an entire nation.
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