What Lies Between Us – Nayomi Munaweera

This past Saturday, a friend and I hosted a women’s literary dinner at my home. The guests of honor were Nayomi Munaweera

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and her devastating new novel, What Lies Between Us.

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First, a little background.

Fifteen years ago, Nayomi was earning a PhD in English Literature when she realized she wanted to write fiction instead of WRITE ABOUT fiction. So she dropped out of school (cue parental angst), moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and spent the next decade working various jobs while writing Island of a Thousand Mirrors, a novel about the Sri Lankan civil war and its effect on families. 

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Nayomi’s preferred cover

The novel won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region, was longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and was chosen as a Target Book Club pick this past January. Here’s the Target cover:

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This latest edition includes information about Nayomi’s family (including photos), book group questions, recommended further reading, and a sneak peak at the first chapter of her new book, What Lies Between Us.

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This new novel explores the much more private trauma of sexual abuse, mental illness—including postpartum psychosis, and its impact on families. It depicts the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship bound by a thin strand of desperation with the tensile strength of a spider’s web. A strand that extends to a new baby girl, a strand that will come to break.

“Motherhood. With her birth a new person is released in me. A person who has nothing to do with the person I was before. I had not known until I crossed into this new land what would be asked from me. What is asked is everything.”

The novel also shines a light on how patriarchal and class-based cultures pressure women to make choices that follow others’ expectations rather than their own preferences. And how patriarchy fashions a woman’s sense of self as a reflection in someone else’s eyes. And that reflection is often fractured, missing essential pieces.

Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us “It was something I learned then. That you could take the crumpled remains of something destroyed and smooth them into newness. You could pretend certain things weren’t happening even when you had seen or felt them. Everything done can be denied.”

But much later, she capitulates: “Nothing is forgotten or finished. All of history is lodged in the earth, in the water, in the strata of our flesh.”

Nayomi shared the background behind her story, saying that women who kill their children are often considered monsters. She wanted to explore what was hidden behind that label. What were the stories behind women such as Andrea Yates who drowned all five of her children in the bathtub? Nayomi’s research found that these women often do show early signs of distress, but no one really understands just how close to the edge they are until it’s too late. Similarly, the young mother in this novel is surrounded by co-workers in the medical profession and other intelligent people who don’t fully comprehend the depth of her struggles. 

San Francisco Chronicle writer, Anita Fellicelli, gave What Lies Between Us a stellar review. She wrote: “Trauma is rarely captured in literary form with as much fiery intensity as it is in Nayomi Munaweera’s devastating second novel, What Lies Between Us…the novel sinks into the kind of heart-wrenching darkness found in Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’…It’s a testament to the power of Munaweera’s dazzling, no-holds-barred storytelling that the novel’s climax still feels shocking.”

I agree. This book shattered me.

And I must disagree with the Kirkus reviewer who lauded the book before saying: “The melodramatic framing device only distracts from the crystalline precision with which Munaweera renders the richness of the immigrant experience as well as her character’s singular longings, fears, joys, and demons.”


That statement left me wondering if the reviewer was male, because every woman I know who’s read this book did not think of the story’s setup as a “melodramatic framing device,” but as real life fallout resulting from sexual abuse and/or mental illness, experiences that many women share. Experiences that are often hidden from consciousness while heavily influencing the course of their lives. Some end up killing themselves or becoming society’s monsters.

So, be off with you Kirkus! To me, it’s not so much about the “richness of the immigrant experience” as about the darkness that lurks within too many women’s lives.

Nuff said.


31 thoughts on “What Lies Between Us – Nayomi Munaweera

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yay! I hope you enjoy it. Nayomi is a warm and engaging person. I feel very lucky to have been included on her “yes” list since she’s very busy doing readings and traveling to get the word out about the new book. I hope we’ll be able to host her again in the future.

  1. FictionFan says:

    Both books sound like extremely powerful and tough reads. I do tend to avoid war books most of the time, because they either upset me or else make me furiously angry, but What Lies Between Us may sneak on to my TBR when I’m not looking…

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I’ll be reading Island of a 1,000 Mirrors soon, so I’ll let you know how it goes. It’s been called very even-handed in its presentation of both sides of the civil war. I’m soooo pleased that you’ll be putting WLBU on your TBR pile. Very satisfying to be adding to others’ piles…. 😀

  2. Letizia says:

    Thank you for introducing me to this author. I love the writing in the passages you provided so look forward to reading her work. I also greatly admire that she followed her passion, abandoning her studies to pursue writing – that not only takes courage, but knowledge of one’s self.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yay! Another reader! There are so many wonderful passages, I think you’ll find yourself trying to decide which ones you like best.

      Yes, it’s awesome when that tiny voice echoing in the back of one’s head, the one that originates in the heart, wins out. Her parents weren’t so sure about her career choice, though. At least not at the beginning. Now that she’s making her way along a successful path, their opinions have changed. Gotta love parents. 😀

  3. Read Diverse Books says:

    I would have loved to hear Munaweera speak. Literary dinners sound like a dream. I’d love to attend one some day.

    You have convinced me to buy this book. Thank you for the thoughtful review. I’ll be sure to avoid Kirkus’ review of this novel!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      She was quite thoughtful and generous with her time, a wonderful guest! You don’t have to wait for some day. There are many different ways to hold author events. Be creative and see what you can make happen! I’m so glad you’re going to get the book. I think you’ll enjoy it. Happy reading, and thanks for stopping by!

  4. Mrs. P says:

    Some pretty heady stuff. Takes a gutsy woman to delve into this and to put it out there so other would listen.

    BTW, Kirkus’ review made me think of those who use cliff notes to get through lit classes…the view is too shallow.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      She’s gutsy, smart, and kind. Quite a lovely person. Yeah, I think there’s something to what you’re saying about paying attention to only what’s on the surface. The review was quite complimentary until it devolved into this critique of the “device.”

  5. Ste J says:

    Fantastic post, Munaweera is a name I came across recently and this book will be interesting to read and review, especially from my male perspective, not being Kirkus and all that. I wish I was a friend of the stars like you, I will content myself with hunting her books though and live vicariously through your good self.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Fabulous! From what I know about your reviews and sensibilities, I think you will enjoy either/both of these books. You know, there’s nothing keeping you from organizing an author event—perhaps at your favorite pub?

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, I understand your point. The strength of the writing carried me through. And I thought I’d mentioned, but I guess I forgot to include Nayomi’s quote from Kafka, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” These are the kinds of books she wants to read AND write. So you won’t be finding any beachy-popcorn munching-sitcom-fare here. I’m thinking you’re more of a PG Wodehouse kind of guy. Here’s an excerpt from a Paris Review interview: I still start the day off at seven-thirty. I do my daily dozen exercises, have breakfast, and then go into my study. When I am between books, as I am now, I sit in an armchair and think and make notes. Before I start a book I’ve usually got four hundred pages of notes. Most of them are almost incoherent. But there’s always a moment when you feel you’ve got a novel started. You can more or less see how it’s going to work out. After that it’s just a question of detail.” Here’s the URL for interview, in case you’re interested: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3773/the-art-of-fiction-no-60-p-g-wodehouse Get to work on your stories. My funny bone is waiting…

  6. Kate Johnston says:

    I think the world needs books like these, but I’m not sure I could stand it myself. I would have to really ready myself to be shattered, which I can do, I just need to prep. What a wonderful opportunity to host the author — I bet you’ll never forget it.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Yes, it was a wonderful evening. Please do prep yourself and read the book. I think you’ll find it quite beautiful as well as tragic. I do feel lucky to live near wonderful authors who are willing to be so generous with their time in support of our school.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I’m not certain the reviewer was male, just suspecting. Yes, this is fairly heavy reading, but beautifully written and not without humor. But maybe wait for a time when you’re feeling a little better.

  7. Vanessa-Jane Chapman says:

    Like a couple of others have said, I’m not sure how well I would handle reading this subject matter, but it sounds incredibly powerful.

    This made me think of one of those author questions – if you were having a dream dinner party, who would you invite and what would you ask them? You had that!

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I hope I don’t scare you away if you’re on the fence. It’s so beautifully written that the trauma is described artfully versus graphically. It is in no way a pulp crime story. And if I were to have a dream dinner party, I wouldn’t have to clean the house, cook the dinner, or clean up afterward. The rest would remain the same. 😀

  8. Marsha says:

    What a deep writer. I can’t imagine having the patience to write something that traumatic. I just read an article on FB about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse called, “She Doesn’t Owe Him Shit.” The idea behind it is the sense of entitlement that some men have over women owing them sexual favors if they so much as buy them a beer, or offer to help them even when help is declined. The problem is so widespread, not limited to any one culture. You wrote a great review, and I agree with your review of Kirkus, Jilanne.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Thanks, Marsha. Yes, sexual abuse is more widespread than we’d like to think. And the pervasive idea that abuse comes from strangers hides the fact that abuse is much more likely to come from someone that a girl or woman knows. A mom I know, who’s quite savvy in this regard, gives her children a secret code to use in the event that someone unexpectedly arrives to take them somewhere. The adult must tell the child the secret code so the child knows that the person has been authorized to pick them up.

      I’ll never know whether the Kirkus reviewer was male, or not, but it would be very interesting to find out…..

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