Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne

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Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An exiled Sri Lankan's search for personal identity told with an artist's eye for visual metaphor and language. Brixton Beach is solidly rooted in characters and troubled times, avoids lyricism but still emerges with a stark, sand-blown beauty.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Harper Press
ISBN: 978-0007301546

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When the terrorist bombs bring London to a standstill in July 2005, a doctor heads out in frantic search. He can't find her, and he knows she can't call him.

This image opens Brixton Beach and hangs over it as a threat and a hope.

London's woes are immediately left hanging as we're transported back thirty years to an island still called Ceylon, where a young half-Tamil, half-Singhalese girl called Alice is learning to ride a bicycle.

The island is on the brink of ethnic meltdown and the civil war is one that Alice's mixed family cannot avoid, even if they wanted to – which maybe, in the unlikeliest ways, they don't. Her father however wants his child, and his pregnant wife, to be safe away from the tension and the curfews and the bloodshed. He has obtained passports for England. Nine-year-old Alice does not want to leave.

She cannot bear to be parted from her beloved beach, the home of her grandparents, and her artist grandfather who has taught her to paint, and to make sculptures from found objects, even simply to treasure such beachcombings for their own intrinsic artistry. His presence, his way of looking at things, the smell of his pipe tobacco will both haunt and comfort her in the years to come.

By the time it comes to leave, her mother also has reasons, both traumatic and healing reasons, to want to stay. Leave they do however, and arrive in the cold, grey, unwelcoming England. We follow their lives as Alice struggles to grow into her new country, and her mother Sita, unable to do so, slowly disintegrates. All of this is entwined with the continuing story of the family, and the country, left behind.

The assertion that life is different in England soon proves unfounded as the ethnic tensions of the newly renamed Sri Lanka are echoed in the low-level, subconscious racism that permeates the English middle class at home. The expressions of prejudice flow so naturally in the dialogue that they are shocking only by their recognisable ordinariness. The kind of comments that even by 2005 when those bombs exploded, you could imagine hearing in polite society, prefaced by 'no disrespect but…' How little we have grown or moved on.

It is the events that flow from those ideas that turn lives upside down. The disappeared. The baby left to die. The shootings. The emigration. Desertion. Disintegration. Destruction.

With its focus on the unwilling exiles, who long to go back, or who bring the fight with them, either way unable to let go, Brixton Beach could easily have become a truly depressing read.

It is rescued by those characters for whom roots are of academic interest, important only in understanding the whole person. Characters for whom it is the person that matters, whether they are good or bad, not which side of the divide they come from. Characters who do what needs to be done, irrespective of caste or creed. Characters who restore hope for humanity. The risk-takers, the doctors, the artists.

It is also rescued by Tearne's fabulous writing. Having left Sri Lanka herself at the age of ten and having obtained her Master's degree at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, the author clearly draws on her own memories and experience for Alice. She skips easily from the voice of the 9-year-old, to the impersonal third person, but in both she writes with the eye of the artist. The sea and sky are ever present. Worn woodwork and peeling paintwork are reflections of flotsam and jetsam from a world away. Memories and promises are captured in rock-carvings and made-objects that are meaningless for those who don't know how to look.

Of course it is also about identity, particularly the confused identity of those of mixed heritage. For Alice it is just a thing that is; for her mother something to preserve and return to; for her son it becomes something to be utterly rejected. Perhaps Grandpa Bee is right when he says: This is your first home, you were born here. That is a powerful thing… Perhaps our birthplace is more important to our sense of self than the history of the blood of those who gave us life.

It is a timely book. Coming out just as the Tamils are finally having to concede defeat and there is hope for a peace, of a kind, for the 'sacred island', it is important that we understand the history of the conflict. The Sri Lankan war has been a long one, and a long-forgotten one. If the peace is to be a just peace, the world needs to keep a watch on what happens next. But that isn't the reason to read Brixton Beach.

Read it as you would a painting, slowly, for its colour and concept and beauty.

Recommended.

For further insights into the Sri Lankan story, with a harder edge, try Love Marriage by V V Ganeshananthan.

Buy Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne at Amazon.com.

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