Book Review: ‘Brotherless Night,’ by V. V. Ganeshananthan – The New York Times
“An inconvenient sister” among four brothers, Sashi is even-keeled, determined, on her way to becoming a doctor. Then she meets K, a charismatic and academically gifted boy who lives down the road. The relationship between the two, which begins with a searingly memorable encounter and develops into something neither fully platonic nor romantic, anchors many of the ugliest years of Sashi’s life, as war breaks out in her hometown. In response to bloody repression by the Sri Lankan government, a number of Tamil militant groups begin to take shape, most notably the Tamil Tigers. Disillusioned and angry, K joins them.
In the ensuing years, even as almost everything and everyone she knows is either taken from her or rendered unrecognizable, Sashi refuses to let her own life fall apart. Subjected to the wanton cruelty of both the government and the various militant groups, she is forced to navigate her way through a daily gantlet of obligations and restrictions, both moral and societal. When requests come from the militants — to pay them taxes, to move houses — it would essentially be suicide to refuse. The young Tamil men who routinely torture and kill in the name of her people are not strangers, nor are the Sri Lankan government officials committing the atrocities that fuel these militants’ destruction. Perhaps Ganeshananthan’s finest achievement in “Brotherless Night” is showing, with meticulous accuracy, what it feels like to inhabit a day-to-day life onto which someone else, from the privilege of great distance, can throw a word like “terrorism,” and be done.
Leading with its stark prologue, the novel employs the same kind of deceptive gambit as Johannes Anyuru’s “They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears,” which begins with a scene of Muslim terrorists storming a Swedish bookstore event for the author of a collection of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, before pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet with alternate timelines and unexpected turns. “Brotherless Night” does something almost as dangerous but much more grounded: It takes the presumed terrorists of that opening page and shades them in, shows them for all their conflicting impulses. The narrator of this story is not neutral — she judges, indicts, but based on the entirety of a person’s character. She has no other choice: These are her people, too close to be flattened into moral neatness.
One of the best scenes in “Brotherless Night” involves a meeting of Sashi’s book club — the members gather to discuss a particularly subversive text, only to find that the girlfriend of a Tamil Tigers member has decided to join them. What follows is a tense, loaded conversation between people who know how quickly a wrong word could upend their lives.
Ganeshananthan is a writer of remarkable restraint. Occasionally a precious exclamation mark finds its way into an especially cataclysmic scene, or the narrator might feel the air rushing out of her lungs or her hand involuntarily covering her mouth at the news of a loved one’s death; but otherwise the prose is almost unsatisfyingly steady. And yet, in tone and emotional register, Sashi’s storytelling is a perfect fit for the delicate balance she is forced to walk by virtue of living in a society where running afoul of the dominant forces, saying the wrong thing, leveling too impassioned a rebuke, can prove a capital offense.