Reviews and Interviews


From Pasan Jayasinghe in THE HINDU (14/12/2019)

Sri Lanka’s beauty may be paradisical but the darkness of violence overhangs it. This book sketches the light with more ease than the shadows

Fiction set in Sri Lanka is often haunted by the paradox of the island’s obvious physical beauty and its equally present darkness. Amanthi Harris attempts to make sense of both in Beautiful Place.

Next to an idyllic beach in southern Sri Lanka, the young and bright Padma lives in a lush villa. Its owner, designer and Austrian expat Gerhardt, adopted Padma when she was young, from her abusive father, Sunny, who had tried to sell her to him. Gerhardt pays Sunny to keep him away from her. After a failed stint at university in Colombo, Padma returns to the villa to open it up as a guest house, and finds her life beginning to commingle with a slow stream of guests who are also searching for purpose.

Family trappings

Sri Lanka’s beauty is exotic and expansive in Beautiful Place; Harris paints sunsets and frangipani trees, beers by the beach and spicy fish curries, sunshowers and humid nights, in consistently rich detail. This, however, is easier than capturing the country’s darkness, especially placing it next to the beauty. Harris approaches the task in multiple ways. Outside her villa, Padma’s seaside tourist village swirls with drug dealers, brothels, corrupt politicians and watchful eyes, under the ever-present spectre of violence. There is a comic book element to these depictions, especially the violence, through Sunny’s criminal presence and the increasing threats to Jarryd, Gerhardt’s bohemian yogi friend, who has written a controversial book on Sri Lankan society. Escalating turns of the fist, knife and pistol sit a little too simplistically beside the lush setting, as if the complement to ‘beautiful place’ is always ‘ugly people’.

Fortunately, more nuance in the dichotomy can be found elsewhere, as Harris takes on growing societal ructions in contemporary Sri Lanka. There is growing class resentment, portrayed through the villagers’ envy of Padma’s inherited wealth, and their bitterness at being enmeshed in the pervasively corrupt and criminal tourist industry. The novel does not, however, press too hard on the happy service of the array of housekeepers, cooks and drivers attached to the main characters. This leaves their rarefied privilege intact, and doubles up perhaps to underline the fantastical quality of Padma’s unusual life.

Rising Sinhala Buddhist extremism is also hinted at, particularly through Jarryd’s encounters with elements provoked by his book. Extracts of it scattered through the novel do nevertheless border on being distractingly didactic – an unnecessary CliffsNotes to a place Harris is much better at describing.

More successful are Harris’ judicious takes on family as a source of darkness. Padma’s upbringing with the caring, sensitive Gerhardt has freed her from many conventional Sri Lankan family trappings. Yet her biological family — Sunny, her apparently subjugated and ailing mother Leela, and wayward, criminal brother Mukul — constantly intrude on her life, bringing with them bitterness, suspicion and violence.

Invisible lines

Elsewhere, Padma’s guests, who are all escaping their predetermined futures set by their families in one way or the other, capture the oppression created by family expectations. Harris renders the burdens of obligation, as applied to career, marriage and who you’re seen with and where, in claustrophobic detail.The novel endorses unconventional families and free choice as the key to happiness. While its characters are able to exercise this choice more freely than most, Harris commendably does not paint them as immune to the pressures created by any arrangement of love. Padma wonders how her life would have been without Gerhardt who, in turn, worries that his expectations for her have smothered her.

Harris’ approach to her characters is considerate and quietly affecting. This is particularly successful when the meandering between characters leads to the viewpoints of one being evaluated by another — the mental sizing up of each other by Padma and her guests is often filled with amusing, sparkling energy. At times, however, the characters’ constant examining and re-examining of their own motivations creates a languid repetition, which adds to the book feeling inflated.

Throughout Beautiful Place, the idea that Sri Lanka is a place of splendour so long as its deeper structures are not questioned rings true, and feels particularly apt in a tourist context. For the foreigner wanting to get away, indulging in the simpler pleasures and paying lip service to the locals is enough to retain the image of the place.

Things become more complicated only when the invisible, unspoken lines between country and guest, foreigner and local, wealth and need are probed a little too intently, as Padma and Gerhardt find out.

In the end, the novel does not come to any resolution between Sri Lanka’s beauty and darkness, for there really can be none. Suffering for good people and providence for the bad are constants, even in paradise.

For those lucky enough to be able to experience the beauty and avoid the violence, the fiction of the island can be maintained. Beautiful Place shows, however, that even for those that fortunate, the illusion collapses so very easily.

The writer is a researcher based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.


From Somak Ghoshal in MINT LOUNGE (06/12/2019) Ten years of tragedy in Sri Lanka

It has been 10 years since the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, though the long shadow of tragedy continues to haunt the island nation. On 3 December, the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) reported that around 20,000 people, mostly Tamils, are still missing. The survivors continue to live in fear of reprisals, especially from the government of the new president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected to office last month. Nicknamed “The Terminator” for his ruthless handling of separatism, he has already prorogued the parliament till January, while journalists who carried out investigations into his track record are being rounded up by the police.

The fractured history of Sri Lanka has been powerfully chronicled by several foreign journalists. Frances Harrison’s Still Counting The Dead (2013), Samanth Subramanian’s This Divided Island (2015) and Rohini Mohan’s The Seasons Of Trouble (2016) are essential reading to understand the costs of its long-drawn war. Yet history and reportage, while being potent documents of injustice, cannot always reach into the inner lives of their subjects—a domain often best accessed by fiction. In the last few weeks, three new books have appeared that aim to capture the human face of the Sri Lankan conflict through stories of love, loss and forbearance.

….

In Beautiful Place (Pan Macmillan, ₹599), Amanthi Harris captures the depredations of Sri Lankan society in more recent years, once again through the stories of individuals. At the centre of this nearly 500-page-long novel is Padma, adopted by an Austrian expatriate architect, Gerhardt, from her abusive and emotionally manipulative family when she was a little over nine years old.

As the story opens, Padma is running a guest house out of a beautiful villa designed and built by Gerhardt by the sea outside Colombo. Into this world of deceptive calm arrive a series of visitors, each on the run, either away from unsavoury pasts or on the lookout for safer futures. As their lives intersect, Padma and Gerhardt become embroiled in their trials and tragedies, as does the local community. Eventually, it is Rohan, a British-Sri Lankan man, who goes on to play a crucial role in Padma’s life, enabling her to escape the fetters of her upbringing and misplaced sense of obligation towards a family that has only ever wished her ill.

In spite of its girth and digressions into subplots, Beautiful Place is a breezy read. Through the lives of the people who visit Villa Hibiscus, the guest house, Harris creates a snapshot of a certain demographic in Sri Lanka: upper class, expatriates, English-educated, yet some of them also profoundly conservative and politically corrupt. The locals, poor fisherfolk, sex workers and pimps, resent the entitlement with which these city-bred visitors strut about but also cannot do without their munificence. The settlers, especially foreigners, have to tread a fine line, turning a blind eye to political misdeeds for the sake of peace and stability.

The story takes a sinister turn as one of the expats, a yoga teacher called Jarryd, is abducted and brutalized by goons for writing a tourists’ guide to Sri Lanka that doesn’t look away from the country’s nefarious political realities. Harris writes the ambivalent dynamics between the locals and the foreigners with sensitivity. Like many postcolonial nations, Sri Lanka, in her book, is a society in flux, determined to carve its unique identity and messily entangled with the liberal projects of the democratic West. While it is impossible to separate one from the other, their uneasy overlap is also the root of many pressing troubles that continue to haunt the subcontinent over 70 years after the end of colonial rule.


From GRAZIA INDIA (10/10/2019)

Amanthi Harris On Her New Book: Beautiful Place

by Barry Rodgers | October 10, 2019

This emotionally charged debut novel resonates like a deeply felt memory.
A quick scroll through Sri Lankanborn author Amanthi Harris’s bio on her website makes it apparent that she doesn’t take herself too seriously: “I’ve been a terrible trainee solicitor, a very bored editor of law books and a blissfully contented bookseller, writing and making art along the way”. But, her unflinching honesty around the subject of leaving and losing home in her debut novel, Beautiful Place, is anything but trivial. Centred on Villa Hibiscus, a guesthouse in the beautiful southern coast of Sri Lanka, the expansive and multi-layered novel traces the life of Padma, her stepfather, Gerhardt, and the lives of the many guests coming to stay, each seeking a better life and independence, free of oppression and misrepresentation. We caught up with Harris, and here’s what she had to say about the book.

Month in month out


GRAZIA: Why is Villa Hibiscus symbolically important in the novel?

AMANTHI HARRIS: The Villa Hibiscus is a place of safety, hope and beauty, where one can be inspired, live simply, and be part of a loving, supportive community. All of the characters in the novel are striving to build such a world, to find their way to happiness and a life of worth and purpose.

Month in month out


G: What makes Padma a relatable protagonist?

AH: Padma is young and full of promise and hope, brimming with an eagerness for experience that compels her to embrace the challenges of living a true life. She represents the youthful, fearless longing in everyone; her confusion, fears and insecurities are those faced by anyone seeking to define their path.

G: Describe the function of location  (Sri Lanka) in the novel. How is it  used as a larger metaphor for the connection between Padma and her stepfather, Gerhardt?

AH: I was born in Sri Lanka and grew up there as a child in a household of warmth, openness and intense creativity; an island of its own as political tensions simmered outside, presaging the turmoil of the war that was to come. In some ways, the villa was my attempt to recreate this remembered paradise and to explore it through Gerhardt’s momentous act of taking Padma into his life one lonely, dark night. So, Sri Lanka, in this instance, is perhaps a metaphor for childhood, that longed-for place of love, beauty and true belonging that must be held onto as well as left behind. 


From Ben East in THE OBSERVER ( 17/11/2019) :

Beautiful Place

Amanthi Harris
Salt, £12.99, pp560

Sri Lankan-born Amanthi Harris won the Gatehouse Press new fictions prize for her novella Lantern Evening in 2016, but Beautiful Place is an altogether more ambitious work. Set around the Villa Hibiscus guest house on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Beautiful Place features a global cast of characters who are all in some way searching for identity, family and a place to belong. It’s something of a quiet epic, a lengthy novel to relax into, but with a seismic event that forces everyone to reassess their loyalties and what a better life might mean. As the title suggests, Harris has a keen eye for a sense of place, and though the pace is slow, the mood and emotion are compelling.