May 03, 2017

What Lies Between Us | Nayomi Munaweera

Is it possible to write about abuse, trauma and tragedy in a lyrical, enchanting way? Is it possible to hint an unforgivable crime at the start of a book yet transport you to a place where you see the reasons behind it all towards the end? The answers are yes. At least in the latest novel by Nayomi Munaweera -‘What Lies Between Us’.

Nayomi structures the story well- beginning at the end and taking the reader on a full circle journey through the childhood of the narrator in Sri Lanka and teenage and adult years in the US. Reading a book based on Sri Lanka is close to heart, of course, but when things are described in such detail and beauty, it is very enjoyable. The childhood of Ganga- who is the main character in the story- is described so vividly and with love that one feels a pull at one’s own roots which are obviously still firmly in Sri Lankan soil. The gardens in the story with their multitudes of flowering trees, the pond and the flowering water lilies, the sparkling water from the deep well, the river that swells to a monster at monsoon times, watching the procession of the elephants en route to the Kandy Perahera all strike a familiar chord in Sri Lankan readers  worldwide.

"In the monsoon months, the gardens are a different place, the ground sodden, the pond swollen. The sky lights up in the midst of dark stormy days as if a mighty photographer is taking picturesof our little piece of earth. It isn't unusal to come upon a flash of silver and gold, a koi flapping on the wet grass, swept out of the pond by the onslaught of the rain" p. 14

Also described well in this book is the displacement and isolation that comes hand in hand with immigration. Ganga faces this in her teenage years when she migrates to the United States. The eagerness to fit in and to let go of what was familiar in order to adjust to new surroundings is again relatable. 

"On the island we were fixed in place at birth. we knew where we fit. You were this person's older sister, that person's second cousin on the father's side, that one's oldest cousin. Names would tell you everything about a person's placement in the complex familial and community matrix. the naming described you from birth to burning. 

But in America, there are no such namings; it is possible to slip and slide there. It is possible to get lost in the nameless multitudes. There are no ropes binding one, holding one to the earth." p. 98

On the surface it is the story of a young girl’s struggle and triumph in carving out a life for herself in a foreign land. However, throughout the story there are threads of cruelty and abuse, blending so finely into the tapestry of the story that it is difficult to tell them apart. Time and again, the reader glimpses the murky depths -the unfathomable deeds below the pristine and calm surface of life.

Nayomi writes about psychological isolation brilliantly in this story – one can feel the suffocating loneliness that rises up from the words. Refusal to acknowledge what is blatantly obvious is a common cultural factor in Sri Lankan relationships in particular and a part of  human nature in general. However one often overlooks the devastation that results from such ignorance- the mental rifts that never heal. Throughout Ganga’s life in this book she suffers because of the silence she experiences in the face of major trauma but then resorts to that option herself, in her adulthood.  This novel is a perfect example of how stifling memories and unfavourable experiences can cause things to blow out of proportion later on and cause irreparable damage to lives. Also, this book highlights the lack of support for mental issues in the society. How sometimes there is no help from anyone, anywhere- not even from the nearest and dearest.

"Even on perfect days, there is something under my skin. Some beast that moves below the surface. I can keep it at bay, mostly. But every now and then, it awakes and unfurls in jerky movements. It is the minotaur in the maze of my body. It wakes up and wants to be seen, wants to show its broken face that is also mine. It asks for sympathy and perhaps love". p. 250

Overall, What Lies between Us is a moving story that is full of emotion narrated in a soft but gripping manner. After a marathon reading session and finishing the book in a matter of hours I felt a deep sadness for Ganga but also elation at the chance to read such a unique book. Hats off to Nayomi Munaweera- may we be blessed to read more literary gems from you!

NAYOMI MUNAWEERA was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Nigeria. She migrated to the United States in her early teens, and now lives in Oakland, CA. 'Island of a Thousand Mirrors' (2014) was her debut novel and it was nominated for Man Asian Literary Prize and won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia in 2013. It was long listed for the International DUBLIN Literary Award and short listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. ‘What Lies Between us’ is Nayomi’s second book and was released in February, 2016. It has made it to the BBC’s list of ten best books of February and Buzzfeed’s 27 most exciting books of 2016.


  1. /The sky lights up in the midst of dark stormy days as if a mighty photographer is taking pictures of our little piece of earth./

    Reminds me of something I read somewhere sometime ago...

    A Seeya & his Minibiree are sitting on the door step looking at the sky brilliantly lit by streaks of lightning every so often, heralding an imminent downpour any minute.

    "Seeya... what is all this light?" The little girl asks.

    "Ohh..It's the God taking your photos from up there in heaven, see... that's his flashlight working"

    After some more lightning the girl smiles and says "It seems the God loves me so much; he is taking a whole lot of my photos"

    PS - Thanks for the brilliantly written introduction of Naomi. Entered both her books to my "must read" list...:)

    1. thanks Ravi, yes- MUST read!

      PS- your story reminded me of a Seeya and a Munubura(in this case) I know, who have lots of similar conversations :)