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In the heart of light, the silence: Amanthi Harris’s ‘Beautiful Place’

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Sri Lanka’s beauty may be paradisical but the darkness of violence overhangs it. This book sketches the light with more ease than the shadows

Fiction set in Sri Lanka is often haunted by the paradox of the island’s obvious physical beauty and its equally present darkness. Amanthi Harris attempts to make sense of both in Beautiful Place.

Next to an idyllic beach in southern Sri Lanka, the young and bright Padma lives in a lush villa. Its owner, designer and Austrian expat Gerhardt, adopted Padma when she was young, from her abusive father, Sunny, who had tried to sell her to him. Gerhardt pays Sunny to keep him away from her. After a failed stint at university in Colombo, Padma returns to the villa to open it up as a guest house, and finds her life beginning to commingle with a slow stream of guests who are also searching for purpose.

Family trappings

Sri Lanka’s beauty is exotic and expansive in Beautiful Place; Harris paints sunsets and frangipani trees, beers by the beach and spicy fish curries, sunshowers and humid nights, in consistently rich detail. This, however, is easier than capturing the country’s darkness, especially placing it next to the beauty. Harris approaches the task in multiple ways. Outside her villa, Padma’s seaside tourist village swirls with drug dealers, brothels, corrupt politicians and watchful eyes, under the ever-present spectre of violence. There is a comic book element to these depictions, especially the violence, through Sunny’s criminal presence and the increasing threats to Jarryd, Gerhardt’s bohemian yogi friend, who has written a controversial book on Sri Lankan society. Escalating turns of the fist, knife and pistol sit a little too simplistically beside the lush setting, as if the complement to ‘beautiful place’ is always ‘ugly people’.

In the heart of light, the silence: Amanthi Harris’s ‘Beautiful Place’

Fortunately, more nuance in the dichotomy can be found elsewhere, as Harris takes on growing societal ructions in contemporary Sri Lanka. There is growing class resentment, portrayed through the villagers’ envy of Padma’s inherited wealth, and their bitterness at being enmeshed in the pervasively corrupt and criminal tourist industry. The novel does not, however, press too hard on the happy service of the array of housekeepers, cooks and drivers attached to the main characters. This leaves their rarefied privilege intact, and doubles up perhaps to underline the fantastical quality of Padma’s unusual life.

Rising Sinhala Buddhist extremism is also hinted at, particularly through Jarryd’s encounters with elements provoked by his book. Extracts of it scattered through the novel do nevertheless border on being distractingly didactic — an unnecessary CliffsNotes to a place Harris is much better at describing.

More successful are Harris’ judicious takes on family as a source of darkness. Padma’s upbringing with the caring, sensitive Gerhardt has freed her from many conventional Sri Lankan family trappings. Yet her biological family — Sunny, her apparently subjugated and ailing mother Leela, and wayward, criminal brother Mukul — constantly intrude on her life, bringing with them bitterness, suspicion and violence.

Invisible lines

Elsewhere, Padma’s guests, who are all escaping their predetermined futures set by their families in one way or the other, capture the oppression created by family expectations. Harris renders the burdens of obligation, as applied to career, marriage and who you’re seen with and where, in claustrophobic detail.

The novel endorses unconventional families and free choice as the key to happiness. While its characters are able to exercise this choice more freely than most, Harris commendably does not paint them as immune to the pressures created by any arrangement of love. Padma wonders how her life would have been without Gerhardt who, in turn, worries that his expectations for her have smothered her.

Harris’ approach to her characters is considerate and quietly affecting. This is particularly successful when the meandering between characters leads to the viewpoints of one being evaluated by another — the mental sizing up of each other by Padma and her guests is often filled with amusing, sparkling energy. At times, however, the characters’ constant examining and re-examining of their own motivations creates a languid repetition, which adds to the book feeling inflated.

Throughout Beautiful Place, the idea that Sri Lanka is a place of splendour so long as its deeper structures are not questioned rings true, and feels particularly apt in a tourist context. For the foreigner wanting to get away, indulging in the simpler pleasures and paying lip service to the locals is enough to retain the image of the place.

Things become more complicated only when the invisible, unspoken lines between country and guest, foreigner and local, wealth and need are probed a little too intently, as Padma and Gerhardt find out.

In the end, the novel does not come to any resolution between Sri Lanka’s beauty and darkness, for there really can be none. Suffering for good people and providence for the bad are constants, even in paradise.

For those lucky enough to be able to experience the beauty and avoid the violence, the fiction of the island can be maintained. Beautiful Place shows, however, that even for those that fortunate, the illusion collapses so very easily.

The writer is a researcher based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Beautiful Place; Amanthi Harris, Pan Macmillan, ₹599

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 3:37:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/in-the-heart-of-light-the-silence-amanthi-harriss-beautiful-place-reviewed-by-pasan-jayasinghe/article30295035.ece

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