In this era saturated with polarization: political, religious and economic, where opposing forces take sides through every available media mouthpiece, Ru Freeman’s second novel On Sal Mal Lane is a soothing balm from the daily assault of divisiveness. Set in Sri Lanka during a 4-year period from 1979 to 1983 leading up to the civil war of the 1980’s, Freeman wields her literary prowess to craft a beautiful, important work that resists taking a side. In On Sal Mal Lane, Freeman confronts the prejudices that fueled the devastating civil war in Sri Lanka through the lens of a compassionate and objective narrator who shows impartial respect for every child and adult living on the single Sri Lankan street where most of the novel is set. Freeman writes in the prologue:
“Everyone who lived on Sal Mal Lane was implicated in what happened, including Lucas and Alice, who had no last names nor professed religious affiliations, the Tamil Catholics and Hindus, the Burgher Catholics, the Muslims, and the Sinhalese both Catholic and Buddhist. Their lives were unfolding against a backdrop of conflict that would span decades involving intermarriage, national language policies, births, deaths, marriages, and affairs—never divorces—subletting, cricket matches, water cuts, power outages, curfew, riots, and the occasional bomb. And while this story is about small people, we must consider the fact that their history is long and accord them, too, a story equal to their past.”
With that preface, Freeman introduces her parallel story lines of small individual lives set against a backdrop of civil conflict, and foreshadowes a traumatic occurrence that will devastate all on the street, an event that is entirely separate from the rising violence of war. Freeman writes in her third paragraph of the first chapter:
“Those things, discovered as the months wore on, came to bear upon a day of loss, a day crystallized into a moment that the whole neighborhood, yes, even those who had encouraged such a day, would have done anything to take back, a day that defined and sundered all of their lives.”
With that warning—and with our curiosity piqued—Freeman quickly turns to the novel’s present, a rich and intricate portrait, a window directly into the hearts and minds of the children who live on the colorful street.
While the country careens toward war, the families on Sal Mal Lane play out their lives. They are ethnically diverse and politically, religiously polarized. All around them lush gardens bloom and fade, real and imagined fences are erected, tempers flare and retreat. And at the center of the narrative is a local family, the Heraths, that has just moved to the street and is attracting varying degrees of fascination in the tight neighborhood. Indeed, they are a colorful bunch: Mr. Herath, an in-the-know government employee; Mrs. Herath, feisty, cool but proper; and their four children—the musically alluring Suren; Nihil, the protector; demure, abiding Rashimi; and the whirling dervish of risk and joy, Devi.
While neighborly lives unfold, news of the growing civil conflict is delivered by Mr. Herath, the government insider, and, fueled by rumors and articles in newspapers, the adults discuss and analyze and argue. The entire scope of opinion and prejudice is played out, not on the political stage, but in the everyday domestic lives of Freeman’s impeccably wrought characters. She also manages to uncover the roots of the Sri Lankan civil war in daily conflicts such as a local busybody’s disdain for a neighbor’s surprising lack of willingness to engage in trash talk, or the ingratiating competition between neighbors for Mr. Herath’s insider information.
While the adults divide into deep ditches with smoldering prejudice, it is the resident children of Sal Mal Lane that become the grounding force of this novel. They band together, forming unlikely friendships and displaying generosity toward one another that belies the politics swirling around them. Their concerns are small and individual: neighborhood cricket matches, developing crushes, misunderstood bullies, fear of perceived and real dangers, and the desire for independence. Over the four years depicted in the novel, youthful alliances break and then deepen, independence is asserted, and talents and intuitions are developed.
Freeman has a remarkable ability to capture the small moments that make a person—and a neighborhood—come alive to the reader. In these small moment descriptions, the strokes of color in her fictional painting are at their most intense: The scrappy sister duo of Dolly and Rose as they are irrevocably shaped by the cultured Herath family; the special bond of wisdom and care between Nihil and Mr. Niles; Suren’s drive for musical prowess; the heartbreaking, ill-fated efforts of Nihil to protect Devi; Rashmini’s unexpected and careful attention to wounded Sonna. These many relational strands weave together like the flowering vines growing along Mrs. Herath’s wall. Each one lustrous, a world onto itself, and when braided together by Freeman, a blooming, connective web appears.
The pressures of impending war swirl like the leaves in the woods at the end of Sal Mal Lane, mounting daily and weighting neighbor interactions until the foretold and traumatic event finally arrives with the one-two punch of the anticipated outbreak of violence and the deep repercussions felt in the neighborhood. And, in that way, Freeman succeeds in creating a deep well of empathy in her reader.
Every line of this novel is so richly rendered, you can viscerally hear, smell, taste and feel Sal Mal Lane as if the front-page illustration of the road has a house with your name on it. Here, for example, in the aftermath of the crisis, Freeman’s enchanting prose is at its finest:
“The next morning the children came out of hiding, and because their lane was so small, a dead end after all, and their lives so tight, they were allowed to walk outside as a group, and walk they did, marveling at what had taken place, awe as much a part of their impression as horror. They passed beneath the sal mal trees, whose lower branches were laden with singed leaves and flowers as though a fall season the tropical island had never known had chanced upon them.”
Ru Freeman takes great care to show the complexity and humanity of every single character in her intricate novel, even those we might otherwise be inclined to judge and convict. The journey along Sal Mal Lane presses us to resist the ease of taking sides, to deeply question our tendency to judge, and to surrender our prejudices. While this powerful work may leave you feeling emotionally gutted, it’s worth the pain, because On Sal Mal Lane also promises to lift your heart.
About the Reviewer
Kimberly Frank's work is published in Drunken Boat, Every Day a Century, and forthcoming in Blackbird. A 2014 Idaho Literature Fellow and a 2013 UCross Artist Resident, she has an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. Kim is a regular contributor to SVPN, a monthly lifestyle magazine based in Sun Valley. Currently, she is working on a novel set in China and lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.