Crimes against children are among those that few of us can claim to comprehend, and certainly among the hardest to forgive. For parents, particularly mothers, accused of hurting their children either directly or through neglect, society reserves its harshest judgement.
The kindest thing we hear is perhaps that they were not quite themselves. The parental failure is blamed on some temporary or permanent breakdown and people look for hidden traumas, something that would explain such a failing.
Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us is a novel that sets out to explain one such crime and the possible causes behind it. An unnamed narrator gives us a first-person account of her life, starting with her own birth, and each chapter leads the reader towards the crime that has been hinted at in the prologue.
The story starts in Sri Lanka with a little girl growing up in a privileged but troubled household in Kandy. The house is large but too empty for an only child. She craves her mother’s affection but her mother is unpredictable, lavishing affection upon her sometimes but often retreating into impenetrable silences or ugly moods that involve breaking things. Her father seems to have a more even temperament but he too retreats into arrack-fuelled solitary evenings. The girl’s earliest companion and friend is the gardener, Samson, with whom she spends many happy hours, clearing the pond or climbing trees. The only other constant presence is the old cook, Sita.
At the other end of the world, in the U.S., her mother’s sister lives an even more privileged life with a much older husband and a daughter of about the same age. From them, our narrator gets gifts of cast-offs that introduce her to a different life and culture, one where teenage girls wear shorts and listen to Duran Duran.
By the time the narrator has grown into a teenager, she has learnt to hide her fears and the abuse that she is experiencing. And after tragedy strikes at home, mother and daughter decide to move abroad to live with her sister’s family.
Here they must build a new life, one with lesser economic privilege but free of a lot of the constraints that come with being locked into a traditional South Asian community. Our narrator studies to be a nurse and over the years, finds love and eventually becomes a mother herself.
That the child will come to harm is inevitable, for the reader has been warned of it right at the start. But what part of a woman’s life leads to such tragedy? Is it the result of any specific incident or due to an ungovernable temper? Does it come from a desire to punish a spouse or an inability to cope with the emotional and social pressures of marriage and motherhood? Is it the result of everyone else having failed the mother? Or does it come from her refusal to accept that she needs help, or has always needed help?
Instead of building up to a climactic event, this novel seeks to examine a tragic chain of circumstances that leads to a young mother’s ultimate failure. This could have been the novel’s main strength for it could have set the writer free to investigate the links in the chain of tragedy and the complex nature of emotional betrayal within a family. However, the storytelling here is laid out flat as a delineation of a set of life events as told in a first-person voice that does not seem to hesitate at the door of memory.
The adult narrator betrays no confusion through her account of her own childhood and teenage years. She seems to know exactly where her problems lay and therefore, the fracture of memory that arrives with the denouement does not ring true.
The writing style is also quite direct, dropping no hints about a struggle with memory. This has the unfortunate effect of reducing the climax to a convenience, a mere plot device that has deliberately been placed to enable the story to end the way it did. The middle of the book is somewhat burdened with pages devoted to broad-brush portraits, first of upper-middle class life in Sri Lanka, then of the new immigrant experience in the U.S., and finally of the relationship that leads into motherhood. It is true that these passages are intended to create a picture of the central character and the times she lives in, but many of these descriptions are generic enough to fit any narrative that features a child growing up in South Asia and then living in the West as a brown person.
The novel's major limitation, though, is a narrator who is not unreliable enough. Were the central character's narrative style as slippery as memory itself, the reader would be forced to examine her story more closely, sifting the truth from the spin that she has put on it.
Annie Zaidi writes fiction, non-fiction, drama and films.