When Colm Toíbín calls a novel “one of the best books I have read in years,” I sit up and take notice. One imagines such praise doesn’t roll easily off his lips.
And he’s not the only one to rave about The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragsam’s debut novel. Lots of heavy-weights are weighing in from the likes of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, and more.
Less than 200 pages, the novel is the story of Dinesh, an evacuee in Sri Lanka’s devastating civil war whose world is confined to a refugee camp. The opening chapter is truly horrifying and not for the faint of heart, but it serves to quickly set the tone for the violent, senseless world in which Dinesh lives. Dinesh is unexpectedly approached by an old man who asks that Dinesh marry his daughter, Ganga, presumably to save her in some way from the rebel army. Just how the marriage would save her doesn’t really make sense, but in this war-torn part of the world, nothing makes sense.
The novel takes place over the course of a single day and night in which the two young people, traumatized and numbed by the loss of home, family, and all they’ve known of the rational world, attempt to connect with one another.
This is a book that focuses on the simple acts of our existence—eating, sleeping, defecating, washing, speaking—through the consciousness of the narrator, as when he ponders that hardly anyone in the camp speaks,
because they no longer had anything to say. Conversation was a fragile thing after all, like a plant that grows only in rich, warm, nourishing soil…. The diaphanous threads which in ordinary life had been so easily spun had been dissolved now, leaving nothing left to unspool, and each and every person in the camp had to sit silently alone, lost inside themselves, unable, in any way, to connect.
The exquisite section in which Dinesh washes his clothes and his body in a well to prepare himself for his new bride takes place over 20 pages, a lengthy sequence for such a short novel, but not a word is surplus and the effect is mesmerizing:
All the dirt and dead skin that had coated him, all the rubble and debris of his body had t last been shorn off, leaving him tender and bare like a living seed … he had freed himself of the hold the recent past had taken of him as though with the memory inhering in his hair and nails and skin now gone, everything that had happened could be let go of, the present made free finally to take on a different significance, his raw new skin ready, at last, for new memory and new life.
The Story of a Brief Marriage is rich with meditation and metaphor. It’s a book about being alive in the midst of death. It’s an extraordinary achievement.