This past Saturday, a friend and I hosted a women’s literary dinner at my home. The guests of honor were Nayomi Munaweera
and her devastating new novel, What Lies Between Us.
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.
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:
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.
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.