The Bad Mother

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WHAT LIES BETWEEN US. By Nayomi Munaweera. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 320 pages. $18.11 Hardcover.

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It was with pleasure and anticipation that I learned that Nayomi Munaweera has written a second book. Reading her first book Island of a Thousand Mirrors in 2014, I had reveled in her sharp and intense political voice.

Munaweera’s new book What Lies Between Us, is less about communal betrayals and more about interpersonal betrayals. As in the first book, there are references to lush Sri Lankan gardens, and a journey to the “new and bright and shiny” place that is America. In What Lies Between Us, Munaweera’s description of this journey from Kandy to Fremont, California is lyrical. In the protagonist Ganga’s words, “we trace a path between the tempest-tossed ocean and the canopy of stars and are carried into a new world.”

She remembers the “fresh off the boat” feeling of being a new immigrant. There is the novelty of the unfamiliar land where the misunderstandings of a young girl can be excused.

On seeing dog owners picking up after their pets, for instance, she is puzzled. “How impossible to imagine, in this richest country of all, that people are saving dog turds? For what possible purpose? My imagination boggles …” There are misunderstandings and assumptions about Sri Lanka. Ganga is irritated at being constantly mistaken for an Indian, and the need to dispel “visions of samosas, chai, and women in bindis” as the default—“It’s a separate island nation. It has nothing to do with India.” The ensuing eyeroll is easy to imagine.

We follow the trajectory of Ganga’s life as she is accepted into college, studies to be a nurse, falls in love and becomes a mother.

But is “happily ever after” in store for her?

Will the marriage go well, or will it unravel?

Will she be ecstatic or will she experience growing despair and rage?

I would tell you, but should you believe everything I tell you? What if I was an unreliable narrator? Or my memory was faulty?

All I can say is that these life-changes are described in glowing prose and with a critical stance that is fresh and insightful. The writing is lush and tropical, and succeeds in capturing details and nuance with consummate skill. Descriptions of recognizable Bay Area locations such as Fremont, or Dolores Park in San Francisco can bring a spritz of pleasure.

Ganga has a secret that she does not tell her husband. So the title What Lies Between Us then can refer to their sleeping arrangement, or to deceptions in their relationship.

Munaweera casts Ganga not in the role of the archetypal good mother, but one who is ambivalent about the seemingly never-ending demands to be omnipresent, eternally vigilant, non-smoking, cheerful and slim. She is a bad mother. Ganga rails against the ignominy of being confused for the nanny, the dark-skinned woman who takes care of her child.

“I love my child, but not motherhood,” she admits.

She teeters between giving too little and giving too much.

This decision to interrogate the maternal instinct, that purest and most hallowed of human instincts, provides a tension in the novel. Ganga has anxiety dreams where a selfless mother would let King Solomon give the baby to another mother rather than see the baby harmed.

A book about an unmaternal mother is bound to be a risky decision, but the brilliant writing makes it worth it.

Just don’t believe everything. Not all narrators are trustworthy.

Geetika Pathania Jain is a frequent contributor to India Currents magazine. When she is not writing reviews or grading student papers, Geetika can be found enjoying the great outdoors.

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