Book Review - A Passage North

In Anuk Arudpragasam’s remarkable debut, The Story of a Brief Marriage, set in the north-east of Sri Lanka during the final months of the civil war, his young protagonist is, in the midst of conflict, trying to survive against all odds. His latest novel, A Passage North, is another profound meditation on suffering but, this time, Arudpragasam’s Tamil narrator is at a distance, struggling with survivor’s guilt and war’s aftermath.

In 2009, Krishan is studying for a PhD in Delhi and watching the news unfold in his home country: “he immersed himself in all the images and videos he found … to reconstruct the situation from which he’d been spared.” The end of his relationship with Anjum, an activist, prompts him to return to work in Jaffna, where he had “envisioned participating in some kind of dramatic change … after all the pain and grief”. Instead, Krishan discovers “some forms of violence penetrate so deeply into the psyche that there was simply no question of fully recovering”.

Driven by memory, the novel is about ageing, longing and trauma. It opens in Colombo, some years later, with a telephone call informing Krishan that his grandmother’s Tamil carer, Rani, has died, during a visit home. The news prompts a period of introspection while Krishan travels north to Rani’s funeral.

Krishan reflects on his grandmother’s decline – her struggle to remain engaged – which had improved with Rani’s attention. But it is the suffering of Rani, who lost both her sons in the conflict, that preoccupies him. Although caring for his grandmother in the south had given her distance, her trauma remained. Rani’s inability to forget her loss is in sharp contrast to the attempts of the Sri Lankan army “to erase any memory” of the carnage through “demolition and renovation”.

Sri Lanka, a divided island, is a presence throughout. In dense, hypnotic prose, Arudpragasam explores the desire for independence that enflamed the decades-long civil war, the violence that ensued and the emotional scars that refuse to heal.

Originally published in The Observer