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Brixton Beach by Roma Tearne

This is one of the books chosen for the C4 TV Book Club, it’ll be featured at the end of February. Although I thought it looked interesting I wasn’t in a hurry to read it, but then the publisher offered me a copy as the Oxford-based author is coming to my local bookshop Mostly Books in mid-March to take part in a special book group evening – then I couldn’t resist. It is a wonderful book, so I am really glad I read it.

Roma Tearne is Sri Lankan, and fled the country aged ten to live in England, where she qualified as an artist, (the cover artwork is her own). She is now a creative writing fellow at Oxford Brookes, and this is her third novel. All her novels are set against the backdrop of the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 onwards; it had grown out of the Singhalese independence movement which had marginalised the Tamil minority, leading to the ‘Tamil Tigers’ thirty year campaign to create an independent Tamil state. It finally ended in 2009.

The novel tells the story of Alice, who has a Singhalese mother and Tamil father; she is just nine when the war starts. It’s increasingly hard for a mixed family to live in Colombo. Father, Stanley has applied for passports for them so they can move to England. He’ll go first, and find a job and a house, Sita and Alice will follow.  Her beloved artist grandfather Bee wishes they wouldn’t go, but has hopes of a better life for them, as they’ve already suffered. Sita lost her second baby due to the drunken negligence of a drunk doctor who wouldn’t treat a Tamil.  By the time Stanley sails for England, his relationship with Sita is effectively over, but they have to go. It’s too dangerous for them to stay with Bee; anyone with Tamil connections could be rounded up by the army, and never heard of again. Alice and Sita arrive in England, to stay in a dingy, dark house in South London. Sita can’t stand the cold and damp climate, and retreats into her shell further. Stanley doesn’t stay for long either. Alice is left to forge her own way, and she begins to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps as she shows talent at art too.

The author has managed to conjure up an utterly compelling portrait of life in Sri Lanka at the start of the unrest, and the waves of tragedy that besets the Fonseka family.  She captures perfectly Alice’s struggles to come to terms with all that happens to her, and her chance of finding real happiness.  After Alice, Bee, her grandfather is a fantastically well-drawn character, artist, patriarch, and compassionate soul who is willing to risk all to help those in need.  The heat and humidity of the troubled paradise contrasts keenly with the bleak urban strangeness of London.   The novel however, starts off with a prologue set on the day of 7/7/2005  when bombs went off in London, bringing home to us the similarities of what had happened in Sri Lanka decades before.

This was a deeply affecting read for me, and you can’t help wondering how autobiographical it is – I’ll get a chance in a few weeks to find out when we meet Roma.   I found it far more compelling than Brick Lane, and I will look forward to reading her other novels too. I highly recommend this book. (Book supplied by the publisher, 10/10)

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