Emily Rhodes

Terrorists you might know or love: Brotherless Night, by V.V. Ganeshananthan, reviewed

When a Sri Lankan medical student finds her brothers joining the Tamil Tigers, she is caught in a tangle of commitments to family, friends, homeland and vocation

V.V. Ganeshananthan. [Getty Images]

Brotherless Night is the second novel by V.V. Ganeshananthan, an American writer of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, whose debut, Love Marriage, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2008. Here, as in her previous book, a female narrator unpicks the lives of a Sri Lankan family torn apart by civil war.

Sashi’s reason for studying medicine, and her oft-repeated mantra, is: ‘First do no harm’

The prologue, set in New York in 2009, explodes with its opening sentence: ‘I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know.’ But the bulk of the novel, set in 1980s Sri Lanka, is a mesmerising portrait of time and place in which the narrator gradually reveals who this terrorist is, and explores why ‘that word, terrorist, is too simple for the history we have lived. Some day the story will begin with the word civilian, the word home.’

Ganeshananthan co-hosts the ‘Fiction/Non/Fiction’ podcast, with the strapline: ‘Everything you see on the news has already been written about in literature.’ So it’s no surprise that the politics of language is at this novel’s forefront, and its sweeping, engrossing plot is carefully grounded in historical events, including an emotive rendering of the Mothers’ Front protest in Jaffna in 1984 and featuring a main character based on the activist Rajani Thiranagana.

In Sri Lanka in 1981, the young narrator, Sashi, is a medical student. She studies hard, along with her brothers and their friend K, but their ambitions come under pressure when riots break out and the Sinhalese police burn down their library. It isn’t long before Sashi and her grandmother have to escape the mobs torching people’s homes. But her eldest brother, who has gone in search of a hiding place, doesn’t return, and two more of her brothers, along with K, disappear to join the Tamil Tigers.

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