Beautiful Place by Amanthi Harris

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Beautiful Place by Amanthi Harris

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A strangely beautiful book with a violent and threatening backdrop...characters you will care about. An uncomfortable read in some ways, but maybe that is the point.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: September 2019
Publisher: Salt
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784631932

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Padma, a young Sri Lankan, has returned to the Villa Hibiscus on the southern coast of her home country. This is a place she spent her formative years. It is not a place she was born into, but the one she thinks of as home. How she came to be at the Villa, how it became her home, and the machinations that have flowed through her life ever since she first arrived there provide the score for this gentle and yet subtly violent novel. Padma's present fails to escape her past and much like the musical score of a film, that strand weaves its way through everything that happens at the Villa.

Despite a number of individual episodes, potentially shocking in themselves, and the development of a couple of potential relationships, this has the feeling of a book in which not a lot happens. It is not a plot-driven work. It is a character-driven work, not in the usual sense that we would use that expression of a book, not in the sense of an individual character, but in the sense of character meaning ethical standing or moral code or something of that sort. The whole theme of the book is around what people are willing to stand up for, and how we respond to those who see the world differently.

It also explores the complexity of that concept of character. Watching the events of a few months as they impact on the few people ensconced at the Villa, and those in their individual hinterlands (parents, ex-wives, old friends) we see how easily we can be persuaded or dissuaded from one view or another, we see how our own prejudices play into interpretations, we see how trying to protect someone can have the opposite effect.

The story focuses on a few individuals. Padma who has returned 'home' to start a guest house in the Villa. Gerhardt, an architect, who is closely linked to her: a relationship that is often misinterpreted by others – sometimes accidentally, at others deliberately and with malevolent intent. There is Ruth – Gerhardt's friend from his own youth – inextricably entwined with his life and Padma's.

And there is the naked-sea-dancing Jarryd, who writes unflinchingly of the beauty and the hypocrisy and corruption of the island.

These are all privileged individuals. They have wealth, and background. As do the first of the guests to arrive at the newly opened Hibiscus.

But there are other sides to this beautiful place. There is another kind of privilege, rooted in local politics and power and family connections. There is corruption that seems to be rife from the ground up. There is a level at which such payments achieve their ends and might (perhaps) be thought to be ok, affordable by those who pay, necessary to those who receive, and the deal struck is adhered to…but then there is the other end of the scale that this mentality supports, the point at which money ceases to have meaning and entitlement becomes embedded and violence is the means to the end. Threats and physical assaults and disappearances, and the silence that such things buy.

One of the things that returned to me again and again in reading Beautiful Place was the idea of 'hope' – and in particular, Stephen Fry's interpretation of the Pandora's Jar tale. He moots the idea that 'hope' being the last thing to remain in the jar, means that it is the one 'evil of the world' that did not escape it. Hope, that somehow inborn desire to want to trust certain people, despite everything we see of them…that's another thread running through this story.

Having read the book quite quickly, because for all its length and delicacy and slowness, it does keep you turning the pages, and caring about what happens next, I find myself coming back to the title. Beautiful Place. It is a simple title, but I can't help feeling that it is one that holds a backdrop of meaning that we may be being asked to think about whenever we talk about a holiday destination as a 'beautiful place'.

The backdrop of this story is a holiday destination, and how the tourists respond to it, and how the locals respond to the tourists, is part of the polemic. This is not a kind book. It pulls no punches. I cannot speak to its authenticity or otherwise regarding the nature of life on the island of Sri Lanka, but in broader terms, I have seen similar aspects in other so-called 'beautiful places' around the world. What we see as visitors (whatever kind of traveller or tourist we might me) is never going to be the whole story.

I cannot say that I 'enjoyed' this book. I'm not sure I was meant to. I can say that I was enthralled by it. I cared about the characters and wanted happy endings for them; I wanted less uncertain endings. And it left me thinking about what life is really like in Sri Lanka – and by extrapolation in many other places that I may never see beneath the skin of.

Beautiful Place may well make you feel uncomfortable – I think that is possibly the point. Read it anyway – it deserves to be read. And pondered.

For more thoughtful fiction based around Sri Lanka's recent history we can recommend Love Marriage by V V Ganeshananthan

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