NewPages: "Tearnes prose... is crafted with the skillful touch of a painters brush."
Date: May 5 2009
The mosquito season never seems to end in Sri Lanka; the swarms, “deadly as flying needles,” are always lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. Frequently referenced as a harbinger of death and strife, the image of the mosquito figures prominently in Mosquito, Roma Tearne’s eloquent and moving novel of love in war-torn Sri Lanka.
It's 1996 and after years living in London as a successful writer, Theo Samarajeeva has returned to his native Sri Lanka at the height of the 10-year civil unrest between the majority population of the Singhalese and the Tamils, the largest ethnic minority. Haunted by the death of his murdered British wife, Theo is nursing his heartache in a small town in the corner of the island. Comforted by his manservant Sugi, Theo spends his days working on his fourth novel and cultivating a friendship with a young local girl, Nulani Mendis, whose family has been torn apart by the war. Nulani is a talented artist and sketches Theo on her daily visits; their friendship eventually blossoms into a love that takes the middle-aged writer by surprise. Their love is rendered exquisitely through author Tearne's powerful language and defined, as is so often the case, by moments of absence:
Later, after they had hung the paintings and the girl had gone home, Theo went back to look at them. Paint and linseed oil gathered in the room where they were hung and her presence was everywhere. Again he felt the dull ache of it. He remembered her, in her red dress, with patches of rain falling on it, looking at him, alert as a bird that had evaded a storm.
Tearne’s evocative prose effectively captures the longing Theo feels for Nulani, for his youth and for the quiet beauty of his country, before it was wracked by violence and bloodshed. Tragically, while their romance is still in early bloom, Theo is captured by the government and Nulani is forced into exile in London, where the power of her art becomes fully realized. Brutally tortured by both sides, Theo becomes a painful metaphor for Sri Lanka, revealing the senseless violence that her people inflict against themselves.
Tearne also draws the reader into the story through the characters’ pain, using powerful and visceral imagery. Held hostage in the deep jungle, Theo’s fear is raw and unchecked. We experience his terror through the landscape: “The river running through parts of the jungle was a wide gaping mouth. It cut deep into the interior like a gangrenous wound, neglected and rotten.” We witness a more quiet despair in Nulani, but the extent of her sorrow is evoked on her canvases, for all to see: “Darkness and light, together in the most unlikely place of entombment, appeared to sink to the depths of the earth . . . [T]he images were of carefully drawn objects, glimpsed and then rubbed out even at the moment of recognition; hinting at the ways in which the past inhabits us, shaping us at some level hovering below conscious thought.” When after four years of captivity Theo returns home, his love for Nulani is again marked by loss. Tearne’s prose here, as throughout, is crafted with the skillful touch of a painter’s brush:
After the Tamil boy dropped him at the border, he had simply headed for the sea, the sound of it, the smell of it. His heart had yearned for the girl; his arms had ached with the need to hold her. But now all he had was a pair of broken straw sandals and a notebook lying open with all its stories gone. The wind had whisked them away; the rain had washed them out. Time had rendered them useless, making them old stories from long ago.
Despite the conflict throughout Sri Lanka, Theo is drawn to his homeland and its terrifying beauty again and again, his fervor ebbing and flowing like the mosquito seasons. In his writings, he says that “for all of history and all over the globe the mosquito has been a nuisance, a pain and the angel of death.” And yet, after the pain of the insect's sting comes the promise of healing. Theo firmly believes that “underneath the mess they had created for themselves, the land . . . was still capable of healing. One day it would go back to what it had been before.” Just as Theo is held captive by his country (in both senses of the word), Nulani is compelled to leave and pick up the pieces of her life abroad, mimicking Theo's exodus from the U.K. to Sri Lanka at the novel's beginning. In this sense, they are two halves of the same self. Whether they will reunite is at the crux of Mosquito and Tearne depicts this dance with a lyricism that belies the sheer horror of their experiences.
Sri Lankans have experienced unspeakable traumas throughout their country's civil war, but Tearne shows that they are as extraordinary and resilient as one of Nulani's paintings. Thought-provoking and beautifully written, Mosquito is a stunning and bittersweet portrait of a shipwrecked land, torn by the dualistic ideologies of a post-colonial people.