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On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel Hardcover – May 14, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; F First Edition edition (May 14, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555976425
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555976422
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,069,455 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

In July of 1983, volatile tension in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority erupted in a series of armed attacks and violent riots. Freeman, who situated her first novel, A Disobedient Girl (2009), amid life on the island nation of her birth, here explores more intimately the country’s complex social and political dynamics. We enter the fray in the years leading up to Black July, and we see the effects of civil unrest on the inhabitants of Sal Mal Lane, an otherwise quiet neighborhood. Family ties begin to dissolve as the Sinhalese Silvas try to win over the newly arrived Heraths, Catholic nuns scold schoolchildren for name-calling, and the bin Ahmeds observe Ramadan with increasing caution. Freeman’s gift for verisimilitude is manifest with searing clarity: ivy crawling over glass-crowned walls, wax-paper lanterns alighting, the bulbous trunks and bursting orange bulbs that give the lane its name. And in fictionalizing Sri Lankan history, Freeman accomplishes what reportage alone cannot: she blends the journalist’s loyalty to fact with impassioned imagination. --Diego Báez


Praise for On Sal Mal Lane:

"[A] rich, sensory novel. . . . Freeman never strays far from the neighborhood's youngest inhabitants. They are wondrous to behold, with their intelligence, imagination and innocence. I don't know that I've seen children more opulently depicted in fiction since Dickens. . . . The novel soars [with] its sensory beauty, language and humor." —Cristina Garcia, The New York Times Book Review

"Freeman's powerful second novel focuses on ordinary children living their lives as war clouds build." People, "Great Reads"

"Piercingly intelligent and shatter-your-heart profound, Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane is as luminous as it is wrenching, as fierce as it is generous. This is a riveting, important, beauty of a book." —Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things

"[Freeman's] individual characters are nuanced and richly written--you wish you could just stay on their peaceful lane forever, but of course you can't, and neither can they." —Oprah.com, "Book of the Week"

"Freeman draws all of her characters artfully as she uses her lane and its inhabitants to reflect a larger, troubled world. . . . Not entirely pessimistic about human nature, Freeman even holds out a faint hope for reconciliation, in well-directed words of kindness." —The Miami Herald

"I finished the novel . . . with a deeper respect for the human spirit, despite what politics, violence, and loss can do to it." —The Millions

"On Sal Mal Lane succeeds, gathering gravitas and emotional depth. . . . Freeman makes it a choice reading destination." —Newsday

"Ru Freeman's On Sal Mal Lane is stupendous. . . . With prose both lingering and breathtaking" —Terry Hong, Bookslut

"On Sal Mal Lane does not whittle war down to statistics or gory clashes; instead, it provokes deeper discussion of its manifestations and complexities by chronicling the lives of ordinary citizens living in pre-war Sri Lanka . . . It's the kind of book that makes your heart sink with every turn of the page, continually transforming your perspective on true love and loss. . . . Beautifully composed." —PopMatters, 9 out of 10 stars

"Lovingly written, historically rich and compassionate to all sides of the turmoil." —Kirkus Reviews

"Freeman's gift for verisimilitude is manifest with searing clarity . . . And in fictionalizing Sri Lankan history, Freeman accomplishes what reportage alone cannot: she blends the journalist's loyalty to fact with impassioned imagination." —Booklist

"Freeman is a tender writer, deftly weaving culture, history and, yes, redemption into a story with a range of rich, earned feeling. It's highly likely that readers will close the book with a different outlook on life, love, and loss." —ForeWord Reviews

"Deeply moving and brilliant. . . . A vivid, beautiful and deeply tragic tale of the families that live on the lane and the ethnic divisions that ultimately destroy the fragile harmony of the lane and the country of Sri Lanka as a whole. . . . Devi reminds me of Scout from To Kill a Mockinbird and Swede from Peace Like a River, small girls who make very large impressions, and IÕm sure that On Sal Mal Lane will join their ranks as a new perennial favorite of booksellers, librarians and of course, readers." —Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover

"Loss of innocence is probably a universal mark of coming-of-age, but much of the innocence lost in Ru Freeman's captivating On Sal Mal Lane, shouldn't be visited upon young people, or any people for that matter. This beautiful novel gives us children of a Sri Lankan lane at a certain historical moment. . . . Utter heartbreak is here--for the rapacious violence and madness of the world does come--and smile-as-you-read passages of larger spirits and powers being realized to the better. Ru Freeman's excellent A Disobedient Girl is now followed by a major leap up in accomplishment, empathy, artistry." —Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company

"An elegaic and powerful portrait of a troubled time. Ru Freeman beautifully interweaves humanity and history, creating a wise, thought-provoking and deeply felt novel." —Madeline Miller, winner of the Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles

"On Sal Mal Lane is a finely-wrought sculpture of the capillary systems by which nihilism and violence travel from the political realm to the intimate, and back again." —Rana Dasgupta, author of Solo

"Ru Freeman has written the masterwork of Sri Lanka's bellum civile, a novel that patiently and lucidly witnesses the daily lives of children on a single lane as the violence builds. There are no acronyms, no convoluted battles, no dreary expository detours. This is a civil war about a garden wall, a cricket game, a bicycle ride, music lessons, the shopkeeper that won't sell to you anymore and a teenager choosing between the house of one friend or another's to burn. It distills one of the last century's most complicated wars into what it really was on the ground—the everyday reality of that timeless threat, the neighbor turned killer." —Lorraine Adams, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Room and The Chair

More About the Author

There's a formal bio on www.rufreeman.com. My first publication was when I wrote to the newspapers in Sri Lanka, protesting that a cartoon program I liked to watch had been interrupted by a broadcast by then President, J.R. Jayawardena. Despite this, I went on to win, among other things, a Presidential Award for creative writing. I hail from a family of writers. The stanza at the beginning of my first novel is from one of my father's poems and I was taught literary criticism and an appreciation for language by my mother.

Customer Reviews

This is such a beautiful, lyrical, heartbreaking book.
Mary Akers
Even some of the unlikable characters had depth to them which I appreciated, especially Sonna.
Christina Thurairatnam
I just finished the book and can hardly see the computer screen through the tears.
Rosa Wahrsager

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Christina Thurairatnam VINE VOICE on June 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
On Sal Mal Lane examines the tensions in Sri Lanka in the years leading up to the Civil War (1979-1983) through the lens of the inhabitants of Sal Mal Lane, especially the children. I found that this was a really effective way to tell the story and while there are dark times there are also moments when kids are just being kids and discovering who they are and who they hope to become. I think that helps the book to be more universal in its themes.

The novel has a third person omniscient point of view so we get to know all of the main players but it focuses on the views of the kids of Sal Mal Lane, particularly the Herath children: Suren, Rashmi, Nihil, and Devi. The story starts out with the Heraths moving into their home and the reactions of the various neighbors, most notably the Silvas who, like the Heraths, are Sinhalese Buddhists. Unlike the rest of the families on the street, the Silvas have this attitude of "us vs. them" towards those who are not Sinhalese.

While the Silvas have that negative attitude towards Tamils and anyone else not like them in ethnicity or religion, the other neighbors are mostly helpful and friendly with each other (with the exception of Sonna Bolling and occasionally his hot tempered dad). They respect each other and they all seem to love the Herath children and look out for them. It is really nice to see the sense of community in the midst of the growing strife. Some of my favorite scenes in the book involved the ways that the characters came together to celebrate a holiday or helped each other in some way.

Even though the third person omniscient point of view can create a feeling of distance between the reader and the characters, I did not find that to be the case for me.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Amelia Gremelspacher TOP 500 REVIEWER on May 14, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Sal Mal Lane exists outside a small town in Sri Lanka. More important, it exists in a pocket of time. Sinhalis, Tamils, a Muslim all live on Sal Mal Lane. The children know of the differences in their religion, their status, and their wealth. The new Herath children are Buddhists and their father craves equality and their mother is given to singing the song of any group that catches her ear.

This then is a kingdom of children who listen keenly to the adults around them, while drifting slowly away from the labels they bear. Nihil is the wonder child who can speak backward and wins the love of his piano teacher Ms. Niles, a Tamil. His appointed task is to protect the innocence and joy of Devi, the fey sister. I believe these two are my favorites, although I could conduct a longer more tedious one here.

As man would have it, the disparate elements of the island erupt. Nihil knows it in the vague dread he feels as he learns "Captain, My Captain" obsessively. The language is delicate and reflects a more tactful way of life hiding the same deep emotions. The children are portrayed as true children. They are not cutesy or made more juvenile. Neither are they miniature adults. The plot bears down upon them and upon us without any power to stop it. Sometimes it is only seen as a distant echo, and other times it intrudes harshly in our faces.

As is quoted at the start of this book, Neither a person entirely broken nor one entirely whole can speak."
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Ashley Mott VINE VOICE on June 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I have read the books this volume is compared to -- The Kite Runner for one -- and while I appreciate the basic similarities in the stories being told, I can't say that the comparison is particularly apt. While the theme of children moving from a comfortable life to a hard one is present, this volume is much more dense and doesn't pull you along with the story with the same degree of urgency.

It isn't a book that begs you not to put it down despite the beauty of its prose and the attachment one can develop for the four Herath children (in particular) who speak as both four and one.

This book's beauty lies in its children, but they are used to bring to the front a larger theme - the Civil War in Sri Lanka. For many of us in the West, especially those not alive at the time - this book provides a slight education with its prose which brings it up from the realm of 3.5 stars to 4.

I would recommend this as a summer read. It's not a beach book, but it is one that you can pick up a few different nights a week and read a few chapters. It is a book better suited to enjoying slowly.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By bookworm1858 VINE VOICE on July 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
After seeing this book receive such warm praise from Christina T at Reading Extensively, I knew I wanted to check it out. I was terrified though when I opened the book and had trouble focusing. It's told in omniscient third person from the perspective of the street following a huge crowd of people with particular focus on the four children of the Herath family: Suren, Rashmi, Nihil, and beloved youngest Devi.

Once I had a handle on who everyone was, I really enjoyed this story. I loved the huge cast of characters and the way their lives intersected, how the mistreatment of one person led to cruelty of another or the kindness of people unfamiliar with each other brightened the whole place. The book takes place over five years (from 1979-1983) and we get to see a lot of changes in the lives of the people on this lane. It's very rich from the descriptions of colors to the amazing sounding food and I think it will definitely appeal to fans of literary fiction and book clubs.

However, for me there were also a lot of stylistic and writing decisions that made it difficult to become fully immersed. First was the writing. The best way I can describe it is that there are a lot of commas, connecting phrases for longer sentences and it was not a writing style that clicked with me. Second, as mentioned above, there are a lot of characters. I loved that there was a glossary of the slang and such used throughout the book. There is a map showing where each family lived as well as a list of characters; I would have appreciated if that list identified who was Tamil, Sinhalese, Burgher, etc. This connects to my third point, which is my almost nonexistent knowledge of Sri Lankan history.
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