Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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Mirage

Bandula Chandraratna

Black Sparrow Books / David R. Godine ($24.95)

by Christopher J. Lee

The story behind this novel is almost as good as the story within it. Bandula Chandraratna self-published Mirage in England in 1999 , only to find his book go on to be a favorite in that year's Booker Prize competition. The merit of such acclaim is quickly recognized as one progresses through this story of unexpected love, marriage, and tragic misfortune. Displaying a deep empathy for his characters along with a sharp eye for social commentary, Chandraratna's achievement reminds one of Chekhov, as both writers feature characters searching for a semblance of happiness under conditions not of their choosing.

Mirage begins in the wee hours of the morning, in a shantytown on the outskirts of an unnamed city. Sayeed, the novel's protagonist, awakens for a drink of water, and from this opening scene, both sleepless and dreamlike, Chandraratna conjures a world not often captured in contemporary writing. Taking place in a country that approximates modern Saudi Arabia, Mirage follows the life of Sayeed as he makes his way as a recent immigrant to the city. This transition from rural simplicity to urban uncertainty is further complicated by an arranged marriage to Latifa—a much younger woman who is also a widower and mother—upon a brief visit home to his village. Despite Sayeed's preparations, Latifa and her daughter Leila discover life in the city to be difficult, and their attempts at coping with their new urban environment form a fitting backdrop to Latifa and Sayeed's gradual adjustment to married life.

Sayeed forms an unlikely character to drive such a narrative. In his early forties, working at a hospital as a low-level laborer, living in conditions of impoverishment, he resembles little of what might be expected of a new husband and father, let alone the central character for a novel. However, it is Chandraratna's sympathy for him, displayed through a descriptive and supple prose style, that imbues him with qualities of persistance and modesty that the reader grows to admire. Latifa also possesses such traits, and as their relationship develops through gestures of responsibility and tenderness, their characters increase in depth—not through grand action but through the simple tasks of ordinary life.

The tragedy that unfolds at the end comes as a surprise, and is in many ways magnified by the author's measured approach throughout the majority of the book; the social context of Islamic law combined with an instance of transgression serve to unravel the intimacy and understanding Sayeed and Latifa have achieved. The human dimensions of this novel, so quietly rendered, underscore the heartbreak of Chandraratna's conclusion. Mirage is a work of found love and solitude, of ephemeral connection and everyday wonder, and its emotional resonance extends well beyond its immediate locale.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents