©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews
ON SAL MAL LANE
By Ru Freeman
As these and other families who call Sal Mal Lane home celebrate their
holidays, share food and games, and bring each other into their lives, missed
opportunities as seemingly trivial as gifts of strawberry milk and chocolate
become harbingers of heartbreak.
The world of the quiet street changes with the arrival of the Herath family,
which sings together gathered around the piano. The music is an important
unifying factor throughout the novel. It draws people to the four children --
oldest son Suren who lives and breathes music, oldest daughter Rashmi who is the
perfect child at school, son Nihil who adores cricket but not as much as he
adores and worries about protecting the youngest, daughter Devi, a carefree,
One of the beauties of this novel is that these children are genuinely dear
souls. Their mother is a teacher who has naturally high expectations. Their
father, a government worker, is akin to a less biting Mr. Bennet who doesn't
regret his marriage while hiding behind his newspapers. Their neighbors, the
Silvas, consider themselves the top family of the lane. They're stuffy but not
overbearing. Their two boys are not allowed to play with the Bolling girls.
The Bollings are an extended disfunctional family of a physically damaged,
angry father, a teenage son, Sonna, who is the neighborhood bully and who will
break a reader's heart, and two younger unkempt, flighty daughters who are drawn
to the Heraths. Their friendship brings into the circle the Bolling children's
uncle Raju, a mentally and physically challenged man who remains childlike and
who lives with his mother. Raju adores the children, especially Devi. And Devi
adores Raju because he is the only grown-up who never tells her what she is
supposed to do and not do.
In another house, the Nerath children take piano lessons from Kala Niles, the
grown-up daughter who still lives at home. Her mother is one of the homemakers
on the lane. Old Mr. Niles and Nihil become fast friends through their love of
cricket and books in one of the lovely relationships forged in this novel.
There are sweet friendships among people who often don't have anything to do
with each other in other circumstances. The Bolling girls love being with the
Heraths, who, instead of being uptight, welcome them into their home. One Silva
boy develops a crush on one of the Bolling girls, and they dream of going to
Australia one day where their differences won't matter. The Niles family
blossoms when the Heraths come with their music.
And then there is Sonna. He's the tough guy of the neighborhood. He is the
one everyone fears, because he will attack. It's what he learned from his angry,
bitter father who was hurt in a car crash before Sonna's very eyes while trying
to go off to carouse with a buddy. But the Herath children cast their spell on
him, too. They refuse to see that there is an evil person in Sonna, no matter
what cautions the other neighbors give them. The missed opportunities of trying
to give presents back and forth are symbols of the missed communication that can
heal and strengthen personal relationships when successful, but which are
bittersweet when they are not.
Despite the grownups' best efforts, outside political forces come into the
lane. There are Tamil and Sinhalese, Hindu and Catholic families, Buddhists and
Muslims. Far too many of the people on the lane fear and hate because they feel
they are supposed to do so. One family retreats when the troubles come; the
family members hurt only themselves.
Homes are attacked and people gather together. The relationships that have
been formed don't all hold, but enough of them do to show that even in the face
of the world as they know it falling apart, people can still be good to each
other and true to themselves. Just as missed opportunities are bittersweet for
the children, it leads one to wonder what missed opportunities might have helped
the political situation from disintegrating.
In the aftermath, after a haunting chapter in which another street still
stands only as ashes that will collapse to the touch and which the only living
thing left is not saved, people slowly try to return to the lives they once led.
Then tragedy strikes. There is enough foreshadowing early on that it is not hard
to tell who something will happen to, but there is such strong storytelling that
even knowing does not take away the powerful emotional impact when that
The personal and the political are woven together so finely in this novel
that they do not strain against each other, but bolster the telling of the two
aspects of what the Sal Mal Lane neighbors face and feel. Information needed to
know why it's important to know who is Sinhalese and who is Tamil is presented
clearly and in time to be useful. Freeman is both a journalist and novelist, so
she knows how to deliver the small noticings that reveal character, and the
sweep of politics that change a country.
©2013 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission