Back in Spring, when I was planning my holiday I did a bit of a scout around for books set in Sri Lanka, but struggled to find a good selection. Sakura of Chasing Bawa has since given me a whole host of Sri Lanka book recommendations (which I’ll be sharing in case anyone is interested). Left to my own investigations I bought a copy of Brixton Beach, by Roma Tearne.
Brixton Beach kicks off with a scene of high drama – the July 7th bombings in London in 2005, before taking the reader back in time to 1970’s Sri-Lanka. There we meet a little girl – Alice Fonseka, who lives with her Singhalese mother, Tamil father and her grandparents in an idyllic sea-side setting. As the threat of civil war looms, her father decides to move the family to London, where Alice grows up, coming to terms with life in a different world.
I have mixed feelings about Brixton Beach. I definitely found it a bit of a slow book to get into. From the blurb on the jacket, I was expecting the story to be more focused on the character’s experiences of adjusting to London, so felt for the first couple of hundred pages that I was waiting for the family to leave, when in fact almost half of the book is about their life in Sri Lanka. Then, when I reached the second half of the story I felt that it was too rushed. The time period covered is significant – right through from Alice’s experiences at school, to marriage, motherhood and later life. While Alice is a likeable character, I never felt as if I really understood her motivations or got inside her head which meant that while there were many events in the novel that should have been very moving, I actually felt quite detached from events. Feeling distant from the character also meant that the important issues that Tearne tried to tackle – cultural identity and mixed-race marriage didn’t quite hit home.
I actually far preferred the portion of the book set in Sri Lanka. I savoured the descriptions of the landscape and people as well as the references to the different places that I have visit. Tearne obviously has a passion for her home-country, and this was evident in her beautiful descriptions. The passages that really stood out to me were those that vividly illustrated the many changing moods of the sea – which, because Sri Lanka is an island is so much a part of daily life. I loved the following two lines which I especially enjoyed because of the way in which Tearne evokes the sea’s beauty with such brevity:
“Outside, the sea pleated itself into acquiescent folds.” Page 177.
“The sea was like crushed sapphires.” Page 199.
Sri Lanka is known for its beautiful sapphires, so the last metaphor has particular significance.
I also really enjoyed Alice’s relationship with her grandfather – a painter who adores her and inspires her to be creative. The most tender interactions were between these two characters, and even later in life her grandfather continues to influence Alice. Sadly, I found her mother Sita to be an unsympathetic character. Sita leads a sad and troubled life, but somehow I couldn’t relate to her. I felt even less empathy for her father who came across as cold-hearted and oftentimes a bit thick in the head. Many of the male characters seemed two-dimensional to me. This might seem a little hard, but I felt as if I was reading an autobiography of someone who was quite self involved and couldn’t really understand the thoughts and motivations of others and therefore didn’t depict them convincingly as real people. This really let the book down for me, as at times I was really carried away by Tearne’s use of language. I could almost feel the tropical breeze on my skin and be lulled into a daydream imagining the sea that she describes.
Brixton Beach paints beautiful images of Sri Lanka, but unfortunately didn’t quite hit the spot for me.
5 out of 10.
Have you read Brixton Beach or other books by Roma Tearne?