Review — Amma by Saraid de Silva

Reviewed by Himali McInnes

‘Intergenerational, diasporic story-telling that is polished and compelling. I consumed it greedily within a few days, much like the young queer character Annie consumes her grandmother’s delicious Sri Lankan cooking.’

Amma, the debut novel by acclaimed playwright Saraid de Silva, is intergenerational, diasporic story-telling that is polished and compelling. I consumed it greedily within a few days, much like the young queer character Annie consumes her grandmother’s delicious Sri Lankan cooking.

At the heart of the book thrums the stories of three women from the same family - Josephina, her daughter Sithara, and grand-daughter Annie - revealed in a non-linear narrative. De Silva has called her book a love letter to her grandmother, and indeed it is the love of grandmothers that is shown in the best light. Josephina estranges herself from her gay son with her lips pursed in disgust, yet accepts her queer granddaughter with a humorous comment about her cropped hair. Josephina’s own grandmother, born more than a century ago in Pondicherry, is the only adult that seeks to protect ten-year-old Josephina from being raped by a future father-in-law. Josephina’s parents, meanwhile, drug the grandma to get her out of the way, then lock Josephina in a room with the man and ignore her screams. A girl child is good for just one thing, and will be sold to the man who can pay the most for her. Parental, spousal and filial love in this gem of a book is complicated, ornery, beset with hurts and inexplicable failings. 

The author evokes each place the stories are set in convincingly. 1950s Singapore is very different to the tigerish country it is today: instead of steel and cement and high-rises, it is riddled with swamps and shanty towns and predatory men. 1980s Invercargill is a cold and lonely place for a brown-skinned family, a place full of black ice and schoolmates who immediately spot Sithara’s brother’s homosexuality and start to bully him. Josephina’s husband Ravi is a mischievous, gorgeous Sinhala man with hair ‘so coiled and glossy it is cheerful’, but the local townsfolk just see an ‘Indian doctor’ who they are loath to be examined by. Hamilton, Sri Lanka, Dunedin, London - the story criss-crosses the globe multiple times.

Perhaps the story thread I found most compelling was that of Sithara. Beautiful, competent Sithara, with hair that writhes and tugs Medusa-like and reveals her moods, falls for Paul in 1986 Dunedin - Paul with his ‘light green eyes and smooth glossy cheeks’, with his ‘joyful lines’ around mouth and eyes, who smells like ‘clean bedsheets.’ The attraction is immediate, the sex is hot and feverish; she falls pregnant and they marry. Later, as a darker, violent Paul emerges, Sithara stays with him despite the danger to herself and her young daughter Annie. We aren’t fully told the reasons why Sithara flies back to Paul repeatedly; why in fact she chooses Paul over the rest of her family and thus estranges herself from her beloved brother. Annie’s childhood is scarred by the domestic abuse she witnesses; a compelling reminder that a person can look sleek and happy on the outside, but that inside, invisible storms may be raging. 

De Silva’s writing is evocative of the lush prose of  Indian Booker-prize winner Arundhati Roy. The migrant experience is brought vividly to life with characters that are rich, complex and contradictory, despite the best intentions of the overwhelmingly white cities that they live in to deem them stereotypes. The novel explores the condition of being fully human in hostile environments. There is humour, there is pathos; there is recognition of the intergenerational impact of trauma. There is bigotry and there is redemption. Amma, winner of the inaugural Crystal Arts Trust Prize, is a stunner of a book that deserves a wide audience and multiple accolades, and I will reread it in the years to come.

Reviewed by Himali McInnes

Himali McInnes is a family doctor who works in a busy general practice clinic and an Auckland prison. She writes short stories, essays and flash fiction. She is a constant gardener, a chicken farmer and a beekeeper. Himali adores dogs and books.