Roma Tearne


(Reviewed by Guy Savage JAN 2, 2009)

“Has there ever been a country, that once colonized, avoided civil war?”

Mosquito by Roma Tearne

While Sri Lanka was labeled as “one of the world’s most politically unstable countries” by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank in 2004, the rest of the planet largely ignores the ethnic troubles and civil war taking place in this island located about 19 miles off the coast of India. As with many formerly colonized countries, a legacy of ethnic strife and a power vacuum created by the exit of colonial powers have mutated into terrorism, and bloody turmoil continues to plague Sri Lanka. Colonized by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the 16th century, Sri Lanka became part of the voracious British Empire in the 19th century. The British imported Tamils from India as a labour force for the lucrative plantation economy, but after the island became independent following WWII, the Tamils remained. In the 1970s, a number of Tamil militant groups formed, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) finally emerging as the dominant group in a secessionist war against the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil Tigers were the first terrorist group to use the suicide vest.

The protagonist of author Roma Tearne’s impressive first novel Mosquito is Theo Samarajeeva--a Sri Lankan author who has lived in England for many years. Following the death of Anna, his beloved Italian wife, Theo “an established writer, with a comfortable life in London” decides to return to his native Sri Lanka in 1996. Even though he’s warned continually about the political situation there, Theo believes that he’s immune from the violence. “Some perversity” makes him return to his homeland despite the fact that “a potential guerrilla war was simmering.” So Theo returns to Sri Lanka at first moving to the capital of Colombo. Appalled by the violence and civil unrest, he moves to a house in a small coastal town. But his much-acclaimed novels express sympathy for the Tamils, so Theo’s presence and his sympathies are noted.

Taking up residence in a spectacularly beautiful villa with a loyal servant, Sugi, Theo sets out to begin his fourth novel when he’s invited to speak at one of the local schools. Here he meets Nulani Mendis, a 16-year-old girl whose father was brutally murdered in the village streets. Nulani, a talented young artist, traumatized by her father’s death, begins to visit Theo’s house. These two damaged people, the middle aged writer and the budding artist strike up a relationship that unsettles the village community.

While the island’s beauty lulls Theo into a false sense of security, the novel builds with tension. Just as the mosquitoes spread disease and death in Sri Lanka, violence spreads to all the characters in the novel, and no one is immune. Mistakenly, Theo imagines that he’s an insignificant political figure, but in spite of his best efforts to ignore the brewing civil war, both he and Nulani are swept up in the violence with tragic consequences.

Mosquito is primarily a love story celebrating the triumph of the human spirit and the enduring nature of art and beauty, but the novel also explores the violence through its other characters. Vikram, a Tamil boy orphaned by the atrocities of the Singhalese army, is recruited by the Tamil Tigers until chance lands him in an orphanage. Here, a well-intentioned guardian intervenes to alter Vikram’s fate by plucking him from an uncertain future and providing him with a stable home. But Vikram is permanently damaged by the violence and grows up “monosyllabic and secretive.” A dangerous time bomb, almost completely devoid of feeling, Vikram is once again recruited by the Tamils. Vikram becomes a tool of his unscrupulous controller, Gerard, a man who exploits the traumatized, damaged Tamils by preaching vengeance but who secretly has political ambitions of his own.

Mosquito is a superb, impressive novel. Author Roma Tearne, a Sri Lankan artist now living in England, carves a fine tale, exploring the violence on both sides of the ethnic divide. Tearne weaves art into her story through Nulani’s remarkable paintings--paintings that create “some other dimension,” and transcend the appalling violence of the civil war. Juxtaposing the exquisite lush beauty of Sri Lanka against the senseless brutality of the opposing factions, Tearne’s novel brings her characters together in a time of turmoil:

“The things that had happened in this place were turning people mad. It was not possible to have normal lives any longer. It was not possible to walk without looking over your shoulder at all times. Without wondering who was a friend and who a new enemy. Fear and suspicion was the thing they lived off, it was the only diet they had had for years. Almost every family he knew was touched in some way by the troubles, living with the things they were too frightened to talk about. There was no point, no point to anything. One just waited, hoping. Dodging the curfew.”

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About the Author:

Roma TearneRoma Tearne is a Sri Lankan born artist living and working in Britain. She arrived, with her parents in at the age of ten. She trained as a painter, completing her MA at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford. For nearly twenty years her work as a painter, installation artist, and filmmaker has dealt with the traces of history and memory within public and private spaces.

Her first novel, Mosquito, was been shortlisted for the 2007 Costa Book Awards first Novel prize.

She is currently the holder of a three-year AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) Fellowship, at Brookes University, Oxford and is working on the relationship between narrative and memory in museums throughout Europe.

She has been awarded funding by the Arts Council of England in order to make a film on memory and migration. The film, commissioned by Impressions Gallery, will be premiered in 2009.

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