What Lies Between Us – Nayomi Munaweera

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What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera is a story that is as dark and disturbing as it is illuminating. A tragic glimpse into the soul of troubled young woman torn between two worlds and two senses of her own self.

What follows is the confession of a woman who has committed an unspeakable crime. But to understand it, to begin to accept the truth of her acts, you have to journey back with her. To her own childhood. To a life that has never seemed to be her own.

“…Sometimes nothing happens for months. I do not have to start at each sound; I do not have to run for cover if I hear him behind me. Some mysterious cease-fire and he is just my old friend Samson. I am diligent, but in these times he is nice, gathering guavas and avocados for me, pointing out the fishing birds in the trees. These kinds of things do not happen to girls like me. I am from a good family. I go to a good school. I have an Amma. So how can this be happening in my own home…”

The young girl, Ganga, grows up in a beautiful home in the island nation of Sri Lanka. She is privileged by most of the islanders standards. But life in her home is an illusion. Her mother is deeply troubled and her father absent. Much of the time she is left alone with the servants. One of which is the young man named Samson. Ganga learns much growing up in her home. She learns that she must not disturb her mother. She learns that the smallest thing can cause a violent outburst. She learns that there is a difference in her world on how women are viewed. There is a distinct line between what a good girl is and what a bad girl is. She learns that her changing body is evil and that it leads men astray from their own good natures. She learns that a woman is always in the wrong. She learns this, from the women in her world.

“…They stop suddenly, remembering Puime and me with our ears open wide in their midst. I know the girl they are talking about. What happened to her? I know it has something to do with what has just happened to me, which is called “falling off the jambu tree,” for the bright red fruit of the jambu. It has to do with boys and maybe even something to do with what happens to me when Samson catches me alone, something bad and secret for which only a girl is responsible, for which only a girl has to pay. I know that these women will not keep the secret. By tomorrow, the girl’s reputation will be dust. Even her marriage will not protect her from the barbs of gossip. Shame is female; shame is the price I must pay for this body. The fabric of my white dress is suddenly cloying.
Amma says, ‘Why don’t you two go to your room.’ We slip out. Climbing the stairs, Puime whispers, ‘God, when I grow up, I’m going to drink arrack in the garden with the men. I’m not going to sit around drinking lime juice and gossiping about every single person.’
I nod. I feel as though I have watched an execution…”

But when tragedy tears apart her family, Ganga and her mother must immigrate to America where her Aunt and Uncle live. Now this young girl must reinvent herself as an American teenager to fit in. From clothing to school to shaving, the world is vastly different for Ganga and soon the past she left behind is almost all but forgotten. Except at night when the dreams come and the specter of Samson lurks in the shadows of her bedroom.

As Ganga begins her own family, she must find a way to escape the past. But how can she escape what is inside of her?

“…Some years ago, at a Chinese bile farm, a mother moon bear did something thought to be outside the realm of her animal nature. Hearing her cub crying from inside a nearby crush cage, she broke through her own iron bars. The terrified men cowered, but she did not maul them. Instead, she reached for her cub, pulled it toward her, and strangled it. Then she smashed her head against the wall until she died.
Why do I tell this story? Only because it tells us everything we need to know about the nature of love between a mother and a child…”

What Lies Between Us is a terrific book. It has the potential to be more than just entertainment. It has a cloak of importance around it that bears scrutiny and then perhaps, some sense of awe. There are passages here that some will find too disturbing. Munaweera handles them very well. Told through the blurred visions of a child, she does not dwell on them but realizes the importance of sharing the experience with the reader. The trauma. The pain. The shame and the misplaced blame all lead up to the mental and emotional destruction that is Ganga. All of which leads to the final act of horror that is unforgivable.

The dysfunctional relationship between Ganga and her mother are as central to this novel as the abuse. The lack of love she felt from her mother as a child and the need to gain approval transform into something so different as she gets older. The cultural shock as well and then the relationship with her husband. All these build and build until the finale.

What Lies Between Us is a book that will not be forgotten easily after the reading. It will cling with you, an aftertaste or scent that lingers, but it will stay.

A very good read.

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