On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

67 of 90
On Sal Mal Lane
336 pages; Graywolf
This sweeping coming-of-age novel begins in early 1979 on a cul-de-sac in Sri Lanka where Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher and Muslim families find "a way to balance their own rituals and devotions and languages with those of other people." As we follow the children of those families through the next four years, we see how harmonious and delightful that balance can be—the community gathers to cheer on the athletic Nihil at a cricket match or to celebrate the talented Suren at a surprise musical performance. They exchange sweets to honor one another's holidays and help each other recover from minor injuries with icy chocs (read: frozen chocolate treat). But we also see how fragile and imperiled their connections are in the face of an approaching civil war, how quickly childish grudges can harden into adult cruelty, and how irreparable small acts of violence can be. Though Freeman's descriptions of national strife border on heavy-handed, her individual characters are nuanced and richly written—you wish you could stay on their peaceful lane forever, but of course you can't, and neither can they.
— Ruth Baron