Friday, September 2, 2016

The Story of a Brief Marriage

Title:  The Story of a Brief Marriage
Author:  Anuk Arudpragasam
Publication Information:  Flatiron Books. 2016. 208 pages.
ISBN:  1250072409 / 978-1250072405

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was not about to lose his right arm."

Favorite Quote:  "what dying meant there was no way he could really know of course, it was a subject he was not in a position to think about clearly. It depended probably on what living means, and though he had been alive for some time it was difficult to remember whether it meant being together with other humans, or being alone with himself above all."

Eerie. Brutal. Devastating. Quiet. Hypnotic. Intensely physical. Philosophical. Hyper-aware. All these words describe this brief story of a brief marriage. You know a book is going to be a tough read when the first couple of pages describe an amputation on a child performed by a doctor with a kitchen knife and with no anesthesia. Not because of a lack of caring, but because that is the best he has to offer given the circumstances.

The dead and the injured are the victims of a bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, as also described in Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera.  One side of the war wants to conscript anyone - man, woman, or child - remotely capable of fighting. The other side conducts bombing after bombing to root out rebellion. Those who wish just to live their lives are caught between the two, with nowhere left to go. Equal danger comes from both sides of the conflicts. The refugees band together, burying their dead, trying to care for the injured, and constantly moving to avoid annihilation.

Dinesh is one of these refugees. He is alone, having lost his entire family to the conflict. He walks around near starvation and with scars that cannot be seen. One day, he is approached by a man who wishes Dinesh to marry his daughter. Why? Perhaps to relieve a father's concern, perhaps to help a daughther's survival, perhaps because extreme circumstances create extreme choices. For perhaps all the same reasons and for the thought of a human connection once again, Dinesh agrees to marry Ganga. So begins this brief marriage. Note the very specific use of the word brief.

Though married, this book is Dinesh's world and his story. Dinesh lives where the only constant in his life is death. He lives with the awareness that he too may die at any moment. One bombing. One stray bullet. One step in the wrong direction. His life can end. This creates in him a hyper-awareness of even the most ordinary physical thoughts and sensations for even the most mundane become precious if you stand to lose them.

This focus leads to the only thing that keeps this from a being a five star book for me. It definitely has an "eeewwww" and grossness factor. Many pages of a rather brief book are spent on described the most base of human functions including bowel movements and baths. Blood and body parts are a big part of this book. If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you. The use of these seems deliberate and is explained. "All his life he'd been indifferent to these things but it was impossible now to feel this way, for they had been there with him through everything, through his whole life, and were now about to leave for good." In other words, even the most unappealing things take on substance and value when we stand to lose them. However, I do leave the book wishing that message was conveyed a different way.

The book is primarily descriptive in nature, with Dinesh's focus on his own physical body and on the physical world around him - his own skin, the sand, the overturned boat, the blood and gore of those injured, and even Ganga's physical presence. The writing is wonderfully detailed in these physical descriptions. The book is not a first person narrative, but as a reader, I see the world through Dinesh's eyes. The view is a haunting one, and this bleak book about death leaves me with a reminder of how precious life is and of how much we take for granted.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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