In this gorgeous debut (by turns heartbreaking and deeply funny), Samarasan tells the story of both one ethnic Indian family and the whole country of Malaysia, reminding us that History is the individual people it happens to. This is a tale of layered mysteries and secrets, of misunderstandings and the assignations of blame -- among family members in a divided house, and between Malay, Indian, and Chinese citizens in a country where race determines a person's legal rights and social identity.
It's 1980 in Ipoh town, and the prosperous Rajasekharan family (Appa, Amma, and children Uma, Suresh, and Aasha) is forever changed when grandmother Paati cracks her skull in the bath and dies. Was she pushed, and if so, who did it? What did six-year-old Aasha see? As in Ian McEwan's _Atonement_, a child makes a terrible, irreversible mistake in the name of love. The effect is exhilarating: we love and sympathize with lonely imaginative little Aasha, even as we recoil from what she sets into motion. Chellam, the family's eighteen-year-old servant girl, is blamed and dismissed the same week that Uma, their oldest daughter, leaves for college in America. Meanwhile, Appa (the father) is prosecuting -- in a highly publicized, racially charged trial -- a Malay defendant who might have been scapegoated for the rape and murder of a Chinese girl.
The novel's narrator is big, lush, and Rushdie-esque, panning in and out. Samarasan gives us access to a cast of characters across three generations, moving around in time to show us how Amma and Appa's emotional landscapes were formed, and how colonization, independence, and race riots helped shape Malaysia's future. The central narrative moves backwards in time, ending the book on a high note. In less deft authorial hands, this might make the reading experience *more* painful because we know what will come to pass; but here, Samarasan reminds us of the strong, cyclical nature of hope in both society and family.
Hope hums beneath the surface of this novel, like the somber beauty of the Simon and Garfunkel tapes Uma plays and Aasha listens to outside her door: "Who will love a little sparrow?" Longing is an acute form of hope, and it undercuts these characters' pain and isolation with moments of discovery and connection. Hope may sometimes lead to disappointment, but it also puts _The Wind in the Willows_ in Aasha's hands and Uma on a stage. It offers Paati the sigh-worthy pleasures of warm water and surprises Uma's face with a smile -- one too real for photographs -- as she boards the plane.
I highly recommend this novel; it's a great book club pick - much to discuss, relate to, and learn from.