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On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel by Ru Freeman
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On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel

by Ru Freeman

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My Mother has a good friend who was from Sri Lanka. I knew she lost her family home in Columbo, needed to flee for her safety, Was a Tamil but different from a Tiger. So very confusing to me - all the sects and religions. This story helped me to better understand.
  objectplace | May 31, 2014 |
Set in the late 1970’s in the Sri Lankan capitol city of Colombo, the story centers around the families on Sal Mal Lane, a dead end lane, bound by a busy street on one end and marked by a grove of sacred Sal Mal trees on the other. It’s a mixed neighborhood consisting of middle class : Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, Singhalese, mixed race burghers, and Tamils.

We meet the families, and over seven years watch the c hildren and relationships develop. One teenager finds acceptance in a nearby gang; two fall into puppy love and dream of emigration to Australia. Another pair of sons plan to enlist in the national army; one of the main characters longs to be a composer and musician although his family tries to dissuade him from his choice.

This started slowly with several dozen hard-to-keep-track-of characters. It comes to an emotional and riveting ending in the final section of the book when riots break out in Colombo. The Civil War between Buddhist Singhalese and Hindu Tamils, having simmered under the surface throughout the entire storyline, erupts and changes the quiet neighborhood forever. Suspicions and partisanships divide neighbors that have coexisted as valued friends for many years. In other cases friendship and honor cross all religions and ethnic barriers.

This is an interesting look at the changes brought on by Civil War. Ms Freeman brings Sri Lanka’s history into sharp focus. Her characters are well developed – this neighborhood feels like a real place and I am sad to see the end of them.

I purchased this book in May last year in preparation for the2013 Bellingham, Washington Booktopia. I read Ms Freeman's first book, A Disobedient Girl which I absolutely loved, but somehow this one sank into the depths of Planet TBR.

As an aside, Ms. Freeman was very personable and a delight to meet.

I'll look forward to reading her next novel ( )
  streamsong | Feb 5, 2014 |
This book about a neighborhood in Sri Lanka, a country edging towards civil war, got off to a great start. The writing was sometimes beautiful. In the prologue, the author writes,

“If at times you detect some subtle preference, an undeserved generosity toward someone, a boy child, perhaps, or an old man, forgive me. It is far easier to be everything and nothing than it is to conceal love.”

After that auspicious start, I felt let down. At the beginning of the story, the author includes a map of Sri Lanka, a drawing of the various houses on Sal Mal Lane, and what family lives in each, and a list of the families who live on that lane.

I had to refer to the Lane map and list frequently. Quite a few characters were introduced quickly, and I had trouble keeping them straight.

Most of the characters are not very likable. It does say something about the characters that the one I liked most was a horrible bully as well as being a victim. Most were people I just didn't care about and had trouble caring what happened to them.

I get the message. Neighbors, suspicious of one another because they are different, devolve into accusations and hatred. As does the country. Civil war is anything but civil.

The book has had much acclaim, and good reader reviews, so my less-than-glowing opinion is a minority. Too me, it moved at a snail's pace. I knew too much minutiae of the characters' lives, and just wanted to move on. I sometimes felt hit over the head with the message. Sadly, the book became a chore for me to finish.

I was given a copy of the book for review. ( )
1 vote TooBusyReading | Nov 27, 2013 |
Freeman’s overly ambitious novel set in the early 1980s in Sri Lanka uses a street of diverse families to tell the story of the years leading to the Civil War from the intimate level of the families, from the national level of the country, and a global level informing many of this conflict. When the Mr. and Mrs. Heath and their four children move into lane, their next neighbors takes count on which side this family will fall in with the mixed lot of Sinhalse, Tamils and Burghers already residing there. But there is also the diverse lot of class, religion, gender and ambition that makes the lines fuzzy yet demand a standing as the political climate invades their everyday lives. The adults attempt to outwardly get along and maintain the status quo; with each have their own personal history and their own interpretations on the news that filters down to them, and the children struggle to make sense of the adult world.

The reader can feel the love the author has for her country and the people, and this shows most when she is telling the children story. You feel the pending disaster about to happen and the author wanting to hold the children close to her heart. But this countered by the plodding narrator who often stops the flow of the story to provide often unnecessary opinions in too many words and implies the pending disaster that will devastate the lane a little too early in the story.

With all of the conflicts continually happening all over the world, if you ever want to know how neighbors go from an agreed congenial relationships to having to take a stand you will enjoy this book as the author excels at telling the day-to-day lives of the people and showing us the universality of human nature and families. ( )
  bookmuse56 | Sep 26, 2013 |
In Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane, several families live on a quiet lane in Columbo in Sri Lanka in the years just before and during the political upheaval, riots and deaths of the early 1980s. One family lacks rancor and is filled with music, sincerity, with hopes and dreams. Anther family is fueled by anger and alcohol, with unspoken yearning.

As these and other families who call Sal Mal Lane home celebrate their holidays, share food and games, and bring each other into their lives, missed opportunities as seemingly trivial as gifts of strawberry milk and chocolate become harbingers of heartbreak.

The world of the quiet street changes with the arrival of the Herath family, which sings together gathered around the piano. The music is an important unifying factor throughout the novel. It draws people to the four children -- oldest son Suren who lives and breathes music, oldest daughter Rashmi who is the perfect child at school, son Nihil who adores cricket but not as much as he adores and worries about protecting the youngest, daughter Devi, a carefree, lively child.

One of the beauties of this novel is that these children are genuinely dear souls. Their mother is a teacher who has naturally high expectations. Their father, a government worker, is akin to a less biting Mr. Bennet who doesn't regret his marriage while hiding behind his newspapers. Their neighbors, the Silvas, consider themselves the top family of the lane. They're stuffy but not overbearing. Their two boys are not allowed to play with the Bolling girls.

The Bollings are an extended disfunctional family of a physically damaged, angry father, a teenage son, Sonna, who is the neighborhood bully and who will break a reader's heart, and two younger unkempt, flighty daughters who are drawn to the Heraths. Their friendship brings into the circle the Bolling children's uncle Raju, a mentally and physically challenged man who remains childlike and who lives with his mother. Raju adores the children, especially Devi. And Devi adores Raju because he is the only grown-up who never tells her what she is supposed to do and not do.

In another house, the Nerath children take piano lessons from Kala Niles, the grown-up daughter who still lives at home. Her mother is one of the homemakers on the lane. Old Mr. Niles and Nihil become fast friends through their love of cricket and books in one of the lovely relationships forged in this novel.

There are sweet friendships among people who often don't have anything to do with each other in other circumstances. The Bolling girls love being with the Heraths, who, instead of being uptight, welcome them into their home. One Silva boy develops a crush on one of the Bolling girls, and they dream of going to Australia one day where their differences won't matter. The Niles family blossoms when the Heraths come with their music.

And then there is Sonna. He's the tough guy of the neighborhood. He is the one everyone fears, because he will attack. It's what he learned from his angry, bitter father who was hurt in a car crash before Sonna's very eyes while trying to go off to carouse with a buddy. But the Herath children cast their spell on him, too. They refuse to see that there is an evil person in Sonna, no matter what cautions the other neighbors give them. The missed opportunities of trying to give presents back and forth are symbols of the missed communication that can heal and strengthen personal relationships when successful, but which are bittersweet when they are not.

Despite the grownups' best efforts, outside political forces come into the lane. There are Tamil and Sinhalese, Hindu and Catholic families, Buddhists and Muslims. Far too many of the people on the lane fear and hate because they feel they are supposed to do so. One family retreats when the troubles come; the family members hurt only themselves.

Homes are attacked and people gather together. The relationships that have been formed don't all hold, but enough of them do to show that even in the face of the world as they know it falling apart, people can still be good to each other and true to themselves. Just as missed opportunities are bittersweet for the children, it leads one to wonder what missed opportunities might have helped the political situation from disintegrating.

In the aftermath, after a haunting chapter in which another street still stands only as ashes that will collapse to the touch and which the only living thing left is not saved, people slowly try to return to the lives they once led. Then tragedy strikes. There is enough foreshadowing early on that it is not hard to tell who something will happen to, but there is such strong storytelling that even knowing does not take away the powerful emotional impact when that something comes.

The personal and the political are woven together so finely in this novel that they do not strain against each other, but bolster the telling of the two aspects of what the Sal Mal Lane neighbors face and feel. Information needed to know why it's important to know who is Sinhalese and who is Tamil is presented clearly and in time to be useful. Freeman is both a journalist and novelist, so she knows how to deliver the small noticings that reveal character, and the sweep of politics that change a country. ( )
1 vote Perednia | Jul 2, 2013 |
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Sri Lanka erupted into violence in the 1980s, with people identifying themselves as Tamil or Sinhalese, Hindu or Buddhist, Burgher or Muslim--the conflicts brewed over language policies, territories and curfews. Against this backdrop of sociopolitical unrest, Freeman sets her second novel. The inhabitants of Sal Mal Lane, like a constellation of stars, orbit around the Herath family, whose house is in the middle of the street and whose matriarch embraces the songs and customs of many religions. A devout Buddhist, she nonetheless teaches her children to sing Christian hymns in four-part harmony. Gravity draws first the attention of Mr. Niles, who discerns a troubled soul through Nihil's uncertain voice; then Sonna Bolling, a bully and political thug-in-waiting; then the Silvas, whose own matriarch embraces every bias and prejudice; and later Raju, whose ugly face belies his lovely heart. Utterly devoted to his younger sister, Devi, Nihil negotiates the world of Sal Mal Lane and beyond, learning about Mr. Niles' previous war experience, which has left him chastened, aware that racial distinctions blur, and frightened to witness the rising turmoil.… (more)

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