This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, by Samanth Subramanian

Samanth Subramanian THIS DIVIDED ISLANDAtlantic Books, out now

Just longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, this well written account of the Sri Lankan civil war does not take sides. Indian Tamil journalist Subramanian approaches a notoriously tangled and controversial subject through the stories of diverse individuals. These include former combatants from the Tamil Tigers and the army, refugees and other members of the diaspora, journalists, medics and other civilians. We learn some of the human cost of this awful conflict.

He finds that Sri Lanka lends itself to this style: “It never required much to begin a conversation in Sri Lanka. The very air was primed for it. In a country so full of uncertainty, all life, and all death, was rehearsed through conversation. It was a form of art, well honed and practiced with skill.”

No previous knowledge of Sri Lankan history is necessary and so it is a useful primer, but also very revealing for those who know more. The problems facing Sri Lankans at home and abroad now are shown. No easy answers present themselves. The author documents his own, sometimes conflicting, reactions to the stories he is told. This makes the book feel honest, current and engaging.

This Divided Island is a must-read for anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful but troubled place, as well as for those who want to know more about the civil war and its aftermath. In places his reporting is the best kind of travel writing, immediate and vivid in his descriptions of transport, food, and places. Despite the grimness of some of the content, the clarity of the writing and the writer’s affection for the place make this an engaging and swift read.

Review by Bethan


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