‘Terrorist’ — to Whom?

BROTHERLESS NIGHT, by V. V. Ganeshananthan

The word “terrorist,” or some variation thereof, shows up six times on the opening page of V.V. Ganeshananthan’s “Brotherless Night.” To be bludgeoned this way by such a poisoned piece of political taxonomy is to be reminded that for those fortunate enough to wield it, “terrorist” is a word that cleanses nuance: It suggests that there are good and bad people, and the bad ones are irredeemable enough to warrant a fixed label.

But the author’s sophomore novel — after “Love Marriage” in 2008 — isn’t really about terrorism or terrorists. It’s about all the ugly little human complexities those words are designed to obliterate, about what it means to have a much less straightforward relationship with violence and the people responsible for it.

The book follows the life of its narrator, Sashikala Kulenthiren, who begins the story as a teenager living in the majority-Tamil city of Jaffna, near the northern tip of Sri Lanka, in 1981. We witness Sashi’s life in the years before and during Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war — another term that imposes a binary divide on a conflict that the book rightly portrays as something far more fractured.

“An inconvenient sister” among four brothers, Sashi is even-keeled, determined, on her way to becoming a doctor. Then she meets K, a charismatic and academically gifted boy who lives down the road. The relationship between the two, which begins with a searingly memorable encounter and develops into something neither fully platonic nor romantic, anchors many of the ugliest years of Sashi’s life, as war breaks out in her hometown. In response to bloody repression by the Sri Lankan government, a number of Tamil militant groups begin to take shape, most notably the Tamil Tigers. Disillusioned and angry, K joins them.

In the ensuing years, even as almost everything and everyone she knows is either taken from her or rendered unrecognizable, Sashi refuses to let her own life fall apart. Subjected to the wanton cruelty of both the government and the various militant groups, she is forced to navigate her way through a daily gantlet of obligations and restrictions, both moral and societal. When requests come from the militants — to pay them taxes, to move houses — it would essentially be suicide to refuse. The young Tamil men who routinely torture and kill in the name of her people are not strangers, nor are the Sri Lankan government officials committing the atrocities that fuel these militants’ destruction. Perhaps Ganeshananthan’s finest achievement in “Brotherless Night” is showing, with meticulous accuracy, what it feels like to inhabit a day-to-day life onto which someone else, from the privilege of great distance, can throw a word like “terrorism,” and be done.

Leading with its stark prologue, the novel employs the same kind of deceptive gambit as Johannes Anyuru’s “They Will Drown in Their Mother’s Tears,” which begins with a scene of Muslim terrorists storming a Swedish bookstore event for the author of a collection of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, before pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet with alternate timelines and unexpected turns. “Brotherless Night” does something almost as dangerous but much more grounded: It takes the presumed terrorists of that opening page and shades them in, shows them for all their conflicting impulses. The narrator of this story is not neutral — she judges, indicts, but based on the entirety of a person’s character. She has no other choice: These are her people, too close to be flattened into moral neatness.

One of the best scenes in “Brotherless Night” involves a meeting of Sashi’s book club — the members gather to discuss a particularly subversive text, only to find that the girlfriend of a Tamil Tigers member has decided to join them. What follows is a tense, loaded conversation between people who know how quickly a wrong word could upend their lives.

Ganeshananthan is a writer of remarkable restraint. Occasionally a precious exclamation mark finds its way into an especially cataclysmic scene, or the narrator might feel the air rushing out of her lungs or her hand involuntarily covering her mouth at the news of a loved one’s death; but otherwise the prose is almost unsatisfyingly steady. And yet, in tone and emotional register, Sashi’s storytelling is a perfect fit for the delicate balance she is forced to walk by virtue of living in a society where running afoul of the dominant forces, saying the wrong thing, leveling too impassioned a rebuke, can prove a capital offense.

Credit…Ibrahim Rayintakath

“Brotherless Night” is a novel deeply concerned with real moments in a real war, real bloodshed. The historical accuracy isn’t surprising — Ganeshananthan is a past vice president of the South Asian Journalists Association and a director of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies. The narrator’s deliberative mode of describing her life feels, by the end of the novel, like the only way this story could have been told. As her community retreats into willful ignorance, turning a blind eye to the murders of civilians that are deemed to be on the right side of the conflict, Sashi maintains a fidelity to the truth of what is happening around her. So much of “Brotherless Night” concerns the consequences of simply describing things as they are.

And when she wants to, Ganeshananthan can loosen her restraint to pull off gorgeous sentences, like this description of the instant after a woman has detonated a suicide bomb in the office of a government administrator: “The first small, potent blast caught her and the man together, and with her right arm gone and his left leg severed beneath the knee, they looked like one person, dancing. Her hair fell out of its pins into his open mouth.”

One of the most interesting stylistic elements in the novel is the narrator’s occasional forays into the second person. In such a tightly constructed novel, these little vignettes, sometimes just a sentence long, feel like steam vents — a means for the narrator to escape her immediate confines and reach out, searching for connection across the boundaries of immense violence but cognizant that there may be none. After rioting policemen burn down her hometown library, Sashi addresses the reader: “Imagine the places you grew up, the places you studied, places that belonged to your people, burned. But I should stop pretending that I know you. Perhaps you do not have to imagine. Perhaps your library, too, went up in smoke.”

Omar El Akkad is the author, most recently, of “What Strange Paradise.”

BROTHERLESS NIGHT | By V.V. Ganeshananthan | 348 pp. | Random House | $28

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