The eponymous street at the heart of Ru Freeman’s accomplished second novel is home to a colorful cross-section of Sri Lankan society. Rich live next door to poor; Tamils and Sinhalese coexist in harmony. Instead of tracking the lives of the adults, Freeman focuses on the children. Sunlit days are spent flying kites, playing cricket and developing crushes. But the skies grow overcast and the serenity is punctured by the ominous thunder of imminent civil war. The Tamil Tigers gather strength, political turmoil reaches fever pitch and a state of emergency is declared. Soon the families of Sal Mal Lane find themselves casting aside their separate tensions and snobberies and uniting to stem the chaos and stay alive.
Freeman’s follow-up to “A Disobedient Girl” is a more ambitious affair but one she pulls off triumphantly. Her trick is to relegate plot and keep the narrative character-driven. Each family, from the refined Heraths to the uncouth Bollings, is made up of finely observed and skillfully drawn individuals, many of whom actually matter to us. Freeman endows them with telltale tics: eager-to-please Nihil can speak words backwards, sage-like Mr. Niles has cataracts that cause him to weep copiously, and morally upright Mr. Herath still believes communism can heal his country’s woes.
Freeman excels with two characters who are so good they seem to belong to a literary tradition: overweening Mrs. Herath, who sets store by “civilized behavior” and has enthusiasm for the “rehabilitation” of the Bolling girls, is a reincarnated Jean Brodie; and hapless, “half-mad” Raju with his face like “a just-ripening jackfruit that had fallen too fast and too long onto the ground” is straight out of Dickens.
Too much sunshine would fail to convince, and so Freeman also gives us bully-boy Sonna, a character who could have been one-dimensional, except his creator expertly peels away his bravado and furnishes us with his tragic back story — more a sob story — which explains why he becomes the unloved creature he is. But Sonna’s sporadic violence is nothing compared with the wholesale brutality that breaks out when baying mobs take to the streets and burn, loot and kill. Freeman only depicts so much, preferring her families be cocooned by, rather than caught up in, the escalating horror. However, no one escapes unscathed, and Freeman keeps her biggest shock till last in her devastating finale.
“On Sal Mal Lane” references “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that other book that juxtaposes childhood innocence with the dark deeds of adults. What ultimately sets the two books apart, though, is Freeman’s tendency to fill pages with jarring chunks of Sri Lanka’s political history to initiate the reader, and the occasional veering from heartfelt sentiment to fortune-cookie wisdom. (“Love is for the person who loves, not for the one who is loved.”)
Fortunately, these lapses are rare. Ultimately, “On Sal Mal Lane” succeeds because it thrums with vitality. On this one street we can find life in all its joy and pain, life lived by people who are so alive.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.