Monday, May 4, 2009

Book review: July by Karen Roberts

July - Karen Roberts

This novel, which is set in Sri Lanka, follows the lives of two young people, Priyanthi and Niranjan, as they grow up in the relatively peaceful suburb of Araliya Gardens, near Colombo. Living next door to each other, their families are friendly and extremely close to one another, despite the fact that Niranjan’s family are Christian Tamils, and considered a minority in the country, which is largely populated by the Sinhalese. When Priyanthi is thirteen, the two families go on a rare holiday to the sea. While Hemantha, Priyanthi’s protective older brother and Niranjan’s best friend, smokes cigarettes and tries to attract female tourists, Priyanthi and Niranjan form a special bond with a local man, Sena, who works among the coconut trees.

Through this bond with Sena, the two also create a bond with each other, which eventually grows into love. But despite the closeness between their families, they know that their relationship will not be tolerated due to a society that thrives on ethnic divisions.
One hot day in July, racism and prejudice in Sri Lanka reach boiling point, and the streets of Colombo erupt into violence. As frenzied mobs murder Tamils and burn and loot the city, Priyanthi and Niranjan’s secret love also comes under attack, and the hatred that storms the streets finds its way into their lives.

What I gained from reading this book:
This book serves to highlight the inanity of racism and prejudice. Throughout the novel, Roberts allows the reader to see people who are strongly opposed to having Tamils in Sri Lanka, those who are indifferent to the matter, and those who empathise with the Tamils but are too afraid to say anything in case of retribution.

Through the characters of Priyanthi and Niranjan, Roberts personalises the struggles that both the Sinhalese and Tamil people face in such a turbulent and ethnically divided society. She allows the reader to see the characters as human beings with their own hopes and dreams, rather than categorising them into religious or political groups, effectively making a connection for the reader with the character, and making the characters’ circumstances all the more heartbreaking. The fact that this civil unrest still continues in Sri Lanka, long after the book is set, makes the themes in this book even more confronting to anybody who reads it.

This novel, while disturbing in its reality, also provides interesting views on the situation in Sri Lanka, and is beautifully written. I didn’t really know much about Sri Lanka before I read this book and it allowed me to learn about the culture and some of the history of the country while also telling a very moving human story.

Some of the descriptions of violence towards the end of the book can be disturbing and unsettling, so this book is probably not a good choice for those who have weak stomachs or who are unable to handle violence in any form.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Genre: Historical Romance

Recommended for: People who want to see a human perspective on the civil unrest in Sri Lanka. This novel could also be considered an alternative Romeo and Juliet story.

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