Mothers, especially in America, can’t seem to catch a break. Let your child run wild in the woods or unchaperoned to the neighborhood market, and risk being arrested for neglect. Watch your child like a hawk, and risk accusations of helicopter parenting.
For these reasons, the opening lines of What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera gripped my imagination. Ganga, the novel’s narrator, is housed in a white cell painted an “industrial white.” The Sri Lankan-born American immigrant has done something “unthinkable,” an act that has made her the “worst thing possible,” a bad mother.
Soon, we learn that Ganga’s crime is much more severe.
Before the details are revealed, the novel jumps into the narrator’s history, starting with her traumatic birth in Sri Lanka which left her mother unable to bear more children. Amma, Ganga’s mother, grew up in a poor household, but married into a wealthy, ancestrally important Sinhalese Buddhist family. Ganga’s reclusive but seemingly loving father is a professor, though he works out of choice and not necessity, and her mother swings between gushing, almost overbearing love for her only child and a violent need to be alone. Amma suffers from migraines and spends days shut away in her room; at other moments, she floats around the kitchen cooking lemon crepes and watching with delighted love as her daughter wolfs down her food.
As Ganga grows older, Thatha, her father, spends increasing amounts of time shut away in his office, drinking arrack — a South Asian liquor — and grading papers. As youngsters are prone to do, Ganga turns to other adults for companionship. She talks with Sita, the family’s lifelong cook in the kitchen, and spends much time with Samson, the handyman and gardener.
But as Ganga approaches puberty, her innocent and pleasurable friendship with Samson morphs, suddenly churning into a poisonous shame. “Shame is female; shame is the price I must pay for this body,” she thinks. Tragedy ensues, and Ganga and her mother eventually must leave the island for America, where they’ve been offered a home with Amma’s sister, her husband, and daughter, a first cousin who becomes Ganga’s best friend and first love.
Ganga carries the shame, and the memory of lost men — her father and Samson — into her adult life in America. She studies at UC Berkeley, watching from afar as her cousin back home marries a Sri Lankan man and falls into the old ways of womanhood: motherhood, arranged marriage, little freedom. Ganga doesn’t want this, and she forges her own path, with unexpected consequences. After years of celibacy, she meets Daniel, an artist from a white, middle-class Southern family; he is the first man she feels safe with, comfortable enough to shed her defenses — and her clothes. Eventually, they marry, and soon after Daniel becomes a San Francisco art star. At the same time, their daughter is born, despite original misgivings about having children. Light-skinned, fair-haired Bodhi Ann upends their lives for good.
I’m unsure if it’s because I’m a mother to a daughter close in age to Bodhi Ann, Ganga’s daughter in What Lies Between Us, but I found the passages about the connection between mother and daughter to be especially affecting. Munaweera writes with a taut, insightful awareness of the fraught nature of motherhood. One minute, it’s all dandelions, unicorns and sunshine, the next a cave of resentment and anger. It can be difficult to find the middle ground.
The last half of What Lies Between Us is woven with a dreadful tension; we know from the novel’s opening sentences that something terrible will happen, but we somehow want to bring it to a skidding halt. Why can’t Ganga have her happy ending, her “sweetest of homecomings” to her “holy trinity” of mother, father, and child?
But the weight of the past, of horrific abuses of familial power, have scarred Ganga beyond repair. “They say that family is the place of safety. But sometimes this is the greatest lie; family is not sanctuary, it is not safety and succor. For some of us, it is the secret wound,” thinks Ganga, as everything comes to a head. “Sooner or later we pay for the woundings of our ancestors. This was the truth for me and for my beautiful bright-faced child.”
There is no turning back, and we are along for the ride with Ganga to the deepest of waters. The swelling, driven by Munaweera’s opulent, lyrical sentences, will not abate. (Courtesy KQED Arts)