Quiet quaint cafe's make the perfect atmosphere for heart wrenching, beautifully written reads. I was sent The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam from the lovely folks over at Flatiron Books . At first when I received the email about being sent this book, I was hesitant. I thought, from the title, that it would be some sort of adult contemporary romance novel, but after reading the synopsis, I realized the profundity of this story and I was right. (never judge a book by its cover haa haaa)
Two and a half decades into a devastating civil war, Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority is pushed inexorably towards the coast by the advancing army. Amongst the evacuees is Dinesh, whose world has contracted to a makeshift camp where time is measured by the shells that fall around him like clockwork. Alienated from family, home, language, and body, he exists in a state of mute acceptance, numb to the violence around him, till he is approached one morning by an old man who makes an unexpected proposal: that Dinesh marry his daughter, Ganga. Marriage, in this world, is an attempt at safety, like the beached fishing boat under which Dinesh huddles during the bombings. As a couple, they would be less likely to be conscripted to fight for the rebels, and less likely to be abused in the case of an army victory. Thrust into this situation of strange intimacy and dependence, Dinesh and Ganga try to come to terms with everything that has happened, hesitantly attempting to awaken to themselves and to one another before the war closes over them once more.
Although this book takes place during the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka, it is vastly different from any book I've read that attempts to capture the viciousness of war. In fact it is the opposite. It captures a more personal account of what it's like to survive the night and live one more day. Arudpragasam wrote, exquisitely, what the main character, Dinesh, was feeling on the day he fled from government forces and a violent Liberation. My heart bled for him. This story made me reflect on how we take so many things for granted like breathing, eating, bathing, moving about freely without hinderances and basking in the presence of those around us everyday.
As the story progresses, Dinesh eventually marries a girl named Ganga. The marriage is arranged. Ganga was offered to Dinesh because her father could no longer care for her. I understand that arranged marriages are an important aspect of certain cultures, but I cannot fathom being thrusted into a marriage with someone I don't know and that I have to learn to love or possibly even like. The most interesting particular about their marriage is that it was incredibly brief, but during this brief time Dinesh develops all the feelings of emotional responsibility to Ganga even though she treated their marriage in a desultory way.
He wanted his wife's approval even through their silence and awkward interactions. I got the sense that Dinesh needed her approval and he needed to feel that he could reach her in some way; that he could connect with someone. His work consisted of burying the dead at a camp so I can only imagine that he felt numb inside, desensitized to death and had a longing for life and all that it meant. He was going to put in every effort to have a life with Ganga regardless of how she became his wife.
“What it would be like to be separated from all these things he did not know, he could not envision, but the more he dwelled on it the more he understood that it was not so much fear of being separated that he felt as sadness at the idea of parting.”
Arudpragasam's writing is incredibly poetic and Denish is such an impassioned character. I felt everything he felt. The author wrote, in an evocative way, the act of breathing as a way to note how even in the heart of chaos and unrest to try to take a moment and inhale the smallest moments that matter. If you follow me on Instagram, you know I have been vocal about searching for equanimity when there seems to be none so Dinesh's need for self reflection, compassion and understanding while experiencing and being surrounded by heinous conditions touched me personally.
This book would almost be a five star rating for me if it were not for what I thought to be extremely overly detailed parts of the story. I think because this book focuses on one day the author had to stretch Denish's every emotion and thought. There is Denish's repeated acknowledgment of feces and towards the end he is obsessing over a dead crow for almost an entire chapter. I recognize the symbolism in both - Denish's connection to the morbid and vile - but I feel it took away from the overall narrative.
I love how with each turn of the page, it's like following a spiritual road map into the recesses of Dinesh's mind. Arudpragasam writes an up close and personal account of one man and peeled back his layers perfectly. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.
My Rating 4/5