The opening pages of this debut novel from Tamil author Anuk Arudpragasam are truly stunning.
Set during the dying days of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, the novel introduces us to Dinesh, a young Tamil man left orphaned and alone by the fighting, as he carries a wounded six-year-old boy to a camp clinic. The boy’s arm has been shredded by shrapnel, dissolving his hand and forearm into a “soft, formless mass, spilling to the ground from some parts, congealing in others and charred everywhere else”. It’s not the boy’s first brush with amputation: he’s already missing a leg from an earlier encounter with a landmine.
What’s horrifying about this passage is not so much the gore – though it is described in uncompromising, matter-of-fact detail – but Dinesh’s emotional detachment. There is something very wrong here; Dinesh regards the boy’s wounds almost quizzically, wondering vaguely about whether – if he survives – he’ll have trouble balancing.
Dinesh cradles the boy’s head in his lap when the doctor starts sawing into the flesh, anaesthesia-free, to remove the mangled limb. He watches impassively, his mind ranging despite the horror.
Dinesh has not just been desensitised by the conflict but completely hollowed out by it. It has left him so thoroughly broken he’s no longer capable of normal human responses like horror or disgust. He’s a shell. Like everyone in the book, his entire psyche has been overtaken with fatalism; death is coming, it’s only a matter of time.
And then he’s approached by a doctor with a proposal. He asks him, for reasons not quite clear, to marry his daughter Ganga. Immediately.
They wed that afternoon but as the title implies theirs is to be a brief marriage: less than 24 hours.
For me, the book never quite recaptures the power of its first chapter. It sags in the middle as Arudpragasam gets bogged down in over-description – like a 20-page section describing Dinesh’s shower – that is meant to illuminate his characters but quickly grows tedious.
However this is still a formidable novel that provides a fascinating – if horrifying – insight into a war that ended just seven years ago; and of course, into all wars, and what they do to bodies and minds.