The families of Sal Mal Lane are not terribly different from neighbors anywhere. They share food on holidays. They exchange cuttings from their lush gardens. They engage in petty feuds and grumble about each other’s children.
What is different for them and what Ru Freeman (A Disobedient Girl) captures so expertly in her second novel is that they live in a volatile place during a time of unrest, and not even the blissful illusions and distractions of childhood can act as a buffer.
Set in the early 1980s, On Sal Mal Lane is partially a history lesson in which Freeman even-handedly examines the racial, political and cultural tensions of a divided Sri Lanka through the eyes of ordinary people. But at its heart the novel is more universal in its appeal, a lyrical meditation on childhood and family, on fear and innocence, loyalty and fate. “People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out,” the omniscient narrator — perhaps the voice of the lane itself — tells us. Freeman asks how neighbor can turn on neighbor, and her answers are dark and heartbreaking.
Freeman wisely provides a map of the lane and a useful list of the people who live there, notably the new family, the Heraths, whose children “were different from all the others. ... It was the way they stood together even when they were apart. There was never a single Herath child in a conversation, there were four; every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together.”
The self-contained Herath children — musical Suren, perfectionist Rashmi, nervous Nihil and willful Devi, the youngest and most doted on — draw the other children together. They befriend the adults, too, engaging them with their talents and curiosity. Their parents are tolerant and educated — Mrs. Herath, a Buddhist, encourages her offspring to sing Christian hymns — but not every adult on Sal Mal Lane is so generous.
The country’s primary ethnic divide — between the Sinhalese and the Tamils — obsesses the Sinhalese Mrs. Silva, who views some of her neighbors with distrust. “So long as the Catholics and the Hindus and the Tamils and the Burghers and the poor, or any combination thereof, kept away from her family, she had always felt there was ample room to engage in largesse.” She is relieved to learn the Heraths are Sinhalese too, but she is less enchanted with Mrs. Herath’s inclusionary tendencies, especially as they relate to the poor (though Sinhalese) Bolling family, whose abused, hostile teenage son Sonna is a ripe recruit for an angry mob. (“The word good had never been applied to Sonna. ... surely he had deserved one word of kindness?”)
The children play and dream, but the threat of civil war rises until not even the most determined on Sal Mal Lane can ignore the danger.
Freeman draws all of her characters artfully as she uses her lane and its inhabitants to reflect a larger, troubled world. The conflict in Sri Lanka isn’t well known in the United States, and though on occasion the characters spew exposition to put the situation in context, the story marches inexorably forward as the Heraths and the Silvas and the Bollings and others prepare to meet their destinies. Not entirely pessimistic about human nature, Freeman even holds out a faint hope for reconciliation, in well-directed words of kindness.
Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.