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Greetings From Polysyllabia

Sunday, July 13, 2008

LOVE MARRIAGE

By V.V. Ganeshananthan

Random House. 302 pp. Paperback, $14

Vasugi Ganeshananthan carries the albatross of a multisyllabic name. In fifth grade, a failed bid for class president made her realize that " 'Vote for Ganeshananthan' isn't exactly, well, pithy." Her last name wouldn't fit on her Harvard softball jersey. When stories in the school newspaper were running short, student reporters called her for quotes so that her name could take up space. But when a Random House editor received a manuscript from Ganeshananthan, the editor had no trouble remembering that name from her school days in Bethesda, where they both grew up. (Moral: Polysyllabic names can land book deals.)

This novel, published under the slightly less cumbersome name V.V. Ganeshananthan, follows a fractured family of Sri Lankans who have scattered around the world. Told in a series of lyrical, linked stories, Love Marriage holds up a gnarled idea of immigrant identity. There's Yalini, the narrator; her parents, who get away with the first love marriage in the clan; her uncle Kumaran, a fighter with the Tamil Tigers, who comes to Canada to die; his daughter Janani, whose arranged marriage on foreign shores will help the separatist movement in her homeland.

At the heart of Love Marriage is the 1983 Black July riots in Sri Lanka, the government's repression that catalyzed the separatists, and the diaspora in Canada that financed them. The civil war has often been documented in the media but is rarely addressed in literature. For novelists like Shyam Selvadurai or Romesh Gunesekera, it was merely off-stage static. Only Michael Ondaatje used his own Sri Lankan roots to address the politics of race in his award-winning Anil's Ghost.

Of course, this isn't the only empathetic portrayal of guerrillas in recent fiction. But Love Marriage is surprisingly feminine and fable-like in its inquiry into chilling moral choices and shortchanged lives. There are well over a dozen women here, and, disappointingly, almost all of them are victims of domestic dramas, their fates sealed through arranged marriages, spinsterhood or bereavement.

Yet this elegiac first novel, begun as a Harvard thesis under the direction of Jamaica Kincaid, rises above the jaded East-West or father-daughter encounters that its clich├ęd title leads us to expect. Its tendency toward homily and the stop-start nature of its melodramatic set-pieces -- with a new name kicking off almost every new chapter -- can be disorienting. But they echo fragmented personal and national destinies. And some lines are as evocative as forgotten tunes: "Reverse a family tree, and branches of blood are whittled down to one person. I am composed of all the men and women before me."

In Sri Lanka, one can journey from alpine highland to jungle to beach to plantation to rock citadel in one enchanted day. It is heartening to see this teardrop-shaped island, which usually makes news only in the context of tsunamis and ethnic violence, at the center of such a thought-provoking novel.

-- Nandini Lal is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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