I have read and reviewed another book between My Name Is Red and this one – but have bitten the bullet and submitted that to a proper reviews website. So let’s see how it goes down. Watch this space (or let’s never speak of this again if they reject it…)
Author: Su Dharmapala
Finished on: 2 April 2016
Where did I get this book: The wondrous Salts Mill bookshop
Salts Mill bookshop is at least partially responsible for the existence of this blog. That fateful trip that saw me purchase Murder Underground. When I got it home, and placed it on the top of a pile of equally delicious looking books waiting to be read, in a house full of books waiting to be read, enough was enough.
But Salts Mill bookshop is still irresistible. And on another visit there this year, I bought three books. You can’t even spend book tokens. Fail.
But this visit came at the end of a year which has seen me buy fewer books than any I can remember, and I wasn’t going to beat myself up. And Saree did look delicious. A book largely set in Sri Lanka, which is a country I love so much. About how making the right clothes for the right person at the right time can change their life. My daughter, seemingly out of nowhere, has developed a passion for dressmaking, and I would love to understand more about this pastime that has so enriched her life. So, despite it sounding more than a little bit saccharine, I couldn’t resist.
But, it turns out that it is saccharine. Very. This is a book that contains many of the tropes of a bad romance novel: cliches* and far-fetched coincidences. In Dharmapala’s defence, the coincides do seem to be a deliberate reflection of a genuine belief in karma (the true story she tells at the end about her father’s life is one of the best bits of the book, and made me look more favourably on what had gone before). Less forgivable is the lack of a good final edit. At at least three points in the narrative, Dharmapala repeats whole sentences of description or explanation, presumably where more than one draft was brought together. These factors jar, which means you can’t lose yourself entirely in the story of Saree; you don’t experience the abandon of placing yourself entirely in the hands of a confident storyteller.
Despite this, there is a lot to enjoy in this book. The descriptions of Sri Lanka are vivid and loving. Several of the episodes are set in places I know: the incredible Sigiriya rock fortress, and a hotel in Bandarawela where we have stayed.
It is impossible not to fall in love with Sri Lanka. And spending time there with Dharmapala is a pleasure. The landscapes and the spirituality are conveyed beautifully. The descriptions of the sarees are gorgeous, and I wanted more of this; the differences and significances in the fabrics, the designs, and the methods of draping – Dharmapala could definitely have justified going a bit Orhan Pamuk on us here, and gone into more detailed description of her pet subject matter. She is also strong on the traditions and restrictions of different Sri Lankan and Indian cultures and how they relate to each other, particularly the relationships between men and women and the minefield of arranging marriages.
She does flounder, however, on the tensions between the Singhalese and Tamils in the 1980s, and the rise of the LTTE. Some horrific events form part of the narrative. Communities and friendships torn apart, and death on a grand scale. But it all feels a bit shoehorned and a bit sudden. Characters change their morality and their allegiances as the plot requires, without much in the way of explanation.
I wanted to suspend my disbelief, and when I did manage it Saree was an enjoyable read. But this is a book where, despite some serious trials and tribulations along the way, most of the goodies get an excessively happy ending, and the baddies get a nasty case of necrotising fasciitis (googled that spelling hiding behind a cushion in case of hideous images).
While there is something satisfying about tying each plot strand up so neatly in a nice pretty bow, I couldn’t help wishing for a shock; something a bit less trite. The stories of the happy couple that Dharmapala ends her story with have been interwoven throughout the whole book, bringing us inexorably towards our happily ever after. I was willing them to be brother and sister. Or just for something that would throw a spanner in the works of the relentless everybody gets what they deserve.
That is probably just me though; when it comes to what I want for the characters in the books I read, it turns out that I am a terrible person. Necrotising fasciitis all round if it livens things up. Please don’t judge me.
*I still can’t find any of the accents on this program