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Susan’s Bookshelves: Brotherless Night by VV Ganeshananthan

My knowledge and understanding of Sri Lankan history and its long, devastating civil war is very sketchy. In fact it’s informed by only two things. First, back in 2001, I remember being astonished, horrified and gripped by Karen Roberts’s novel July which told the story of  two neighbouring families “both alike in dignity” except that  one is Tamil and the other Sinhalese. So they are ripped apart by the civil war and, of course, there’s a cross-divide couple in love at the heart of it.

Second, I have become friends with my Sri Lankan neighbour whose parents moved to London when she was 10 in 1963. She chats to me a lot about Sri Lanka, then and now because she visits cousins there regularly. Of course, some branches of her family were seriously affected by the war. One of her uncles had to watch while the army shot the Tamil workers on his farm. A family home. in Columbo was commandeered by the army. And those are just examples.

Then along came Brotherless Night which has, I gather, taken VV Ganeshananthan – who now, like her narrator, lives in America – 18 years to write. It won the 2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction which was why I noticed it.

Sashi,who narrates, is a young Tamil living comfortably in 1980s Columbo where education is top of the agenda. She has four brothers, and like most of them, her sights are firmly set on medical school and a career as a doctor. There’s also a friend called K with whom she and one of her brothers walk to school and there’s chemistry between him and Sashi.

This exposition is brief because very soon, horrors set in. It’s a political power struggle between Tamils who want independence in Jaffna, a peninsula in the North close to the Palk Strait and India, and the army. Of course the government wants to suppress the Tamils. There are resistance groups, of which the most extreme is the famous Tamil Tigers. Gradually Sashi’s brothers, apart from the youngest, disappear, one way or another,  along with K – hence the title of this arresting novel. Sashi and her mother escape to Jaffna.  Later the Indian army turns up to “relieve” Jaffna but of course it’s not exactly benign. None of it is straightforward. My oversimplified summary is exactly that. There are factions within factions and Ganeshananthan is very good indeed at exploring divided loyalties.

Spoilers would not be appropriate here but let me cite just a couple of things which now haunt me. One of the characters undergoes a very public hunger strike and the tension is heart-in-mouth stuff. And I was pretty horrified by the open kidnapping of Sashi’s youngest brother, aged 14, by the army – my neighbour told me quite casually over the fence yesterday about a family she knows where exactly this happened. All this, therefore, suddenly feels very immediate.

She is now reading Brotherless Night. So should you be if you want to come anywhere near understanding the plight of ordinary families when a nation is seized by political and racial bigotry and violence. People talk rather oddly of “war crimes”. Isn’t all war a crime?



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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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