This first novel by the Sri Lankan–Australian writer Rajith Savanadasa takes place in the latter stages and aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War, during which the Tamil Tigers fought for an independent homeland. It ended with the government accused of war crimes.
Ruins – despite its apocalyptic title – is not only about that war. Neither is it solely a portrait of contemporary Colombo, where the action takes place, though the trishaws battling with cars on the roads and the mix of languages provide a rich sense of location. The novel also powerfully resonates with a global reality in which affluence and narcissistic consumerism afford ignorance of suffering.
The book’s upwardly mobile urban characters, who define themselves by cars, clothes, devices and schools, and for whom war is a distant dream, are recognisable in an Australian context, too. The tragic divisions of race, colonialism, class, gender, sexuality and religion – while specific to Sri Lanka – also have their counterparts here.
Such social divisions inform the isolation experienced by each member of the middle-class family that is the focus of the plot. Narrating their perspectives in separate chapters, the structure cleverly emphasises the microcosm of anxiety and despair each character inhabits. The matriarch, Lakshmi, is isolated because of her Tamil background. Her teenage daughter, Anoushka, becomes isolated by her emerging homosexuality. The most heartbreaking character is Latha, the family’s lower-caste Tamil servant, who accepts her abject status. She cleans the telephone receiver with Dettol immediately after making calls. Despite her devotion to her employers, they treat her mostly with contempt.
An author’s note explains that the structure of the book is loosely based on a Sinhala moonstone and its representation of the Buddhist cycle of life. Despite the different milieu, Savanadasa’s discrete but interconnected stories remind me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ruins even has some chapters dedicated to the musical obsessions of disenfranchised and rebellious youth, such as punk, as found in Egan’s work.
As this comparison with Egan suggests, Ruins is an impressive debut. Savanadasa joins other important contemporary Australian–Sri Lankan novelists – Yasmine Gooneratne, Michelle de Kretser and Chandani Lokugé – in enriching the globalised phenomenon that is Australian literature. KN
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Rajith Savanadasa, Ruins ". Subscribe here.