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'Love' Blends Old With New

Harvard grad's debut novel explores the history of a Sri Lankan family

By Meredith S. Steuer, Contributing Writer

“The intersection of war and love is a strange place,” says the narrator of “Love Marriage,” the debut novel of V. V. Ganeshananthan ‘02, a former Crimson managing editor. While certainly not a new and innovative idea, Ganeshananthan draws the reader into this “strange place” in a poetic and informative fashion. Through beautiful language and memorable characters, Ganeshananthan creates a world that, while not completely original, provides insight into the unique experiences of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants. Just as authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende have used the histories and genealogies of large, sprawling families to craft novels that span several important generations in a conflict-ridden area, “Love Marriage” is able to both demonstrate a culture in action and create memorable characters.

Told in distinct one- to three-page sections that focus on one or two particular characters, often announced in italics at the beginning of the section, “Love Marriage” is centered on the story of Yalini. Yalini is the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants to the United States, her father a doctor and her mother a school teacher. She goes to university, where she studies incessantly and makes only one friend—in fact, he makes her his friend by refusing to allow her to withdraw from him as she did from all of her other fellow classmates. While one can relate to her sensitive and perceptive mind, her extreme and, at times, self-righteous reticence proves frustrating. After 9/11, she perceives only her desire for solitude as true:the wants of other students are frivolous: “students who lived with me met to talk about what had happened, but I did not join them, because that would have accomplished nothing. I wanted to be alone.” After her second year, she leaves the U.S. for Canada to be with her ailing uncle, a Tamil Tiger who was allowed to die with his family because of his family’s loyalty to the Tiger cause.

The reader comes to love Yalini, with her appreciation for the sacrifices her parents have made for her, her pure childhood passion for books (“Sometimes I sat for hours, poring over the medical dictionary”), and her relentless research into her family’s history through conversations with relatives, especially her father and her uncle. During her genealogical exploration, Yalini comes to realize that she is the product of her ancestors, most resembling an aunt named Uma who was brilliant but suffered from an undefined mental disorder, possibly schizophrenia.

The novel develops a complex and multi-faceted relationship with tradition. We see Yalini’s family tree before we hear a word of the story, and this respect for tradition is further emphasized by Yalini’s admiration for her mother, who does things “Properly”—with a capital P. Although her parents tried to follow, “Properly,” as many of the traditional rites of marriage as they could in America, Yalini knows that their marriage was not arranged in the traditional manner; they fell in love, and their “Love Marriage” gives the book its title. But the past is not always a positive in Ganeshananthan’s novel. Yalini’s beloved uncle has killed many people and, before Yalini was born, threatened to kill the family of Yalini’s father. Thus, Yalini’s relationship with tradition is a complex one, simultaneously embracing and menacing.

The novel’s sparse sentences and luscious imagery are reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid, who was Ganeshananthan’s English thesis advisor at Harvard. Ganeshananthan admits in her acknowledgments that Kinkaid’s “particular brand of meticulous attention continues to be the standard for which I strive,” and there are multiple moments when Ganeshananthan soars to the same heights of literary joy as her mentor. When Yalini describes her similarity to her Aunt Uma, Ganeshananthan’s prose takes off: “Uma was not there, not there to the point that when the temple lamp was passed she dipped her fingers into the fire instead of hovering at its edge. She did not notice the pain. Murali [Yalini’s father] knows now that you cannot escape your demons. He sees me, Yalini, as perhaps most like Uma: she has those other world eyes.”

Ultimately, the novel ends without real resolution: the tension between tradition and the future remains as fraught as ever. Even though she has avidly researched her past, Yalini’s future remains undetermined by it. Speaking of her parents’ feelings towards her own generation, she says, “We are not quite safe, and they would like to see the matter settled: we leave them with queasy stomachs and unsettled Hearts. But although we are the children of our parents, we have entered other countries in which the rules of Marriage—Love Marriage, Arranged Marriage, and all that lies in between—do not always apply.” Perhaps Ganeshananthan’s sentiment is not original, but it is certainly beautiful.

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