The Story of a Brief Marriage

Anuk Arudpragasam

Published by Flatiron Books US/ Granta UK

6 September/6 October 2016

208pp, $24.99/£12.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner


In an unnamed country, a populace has been uprooted by warfare. Shells fall every day. Adults and children are blown apart by shrapnel. Limbs are severed. Survivors dwell in an enormous makeshift camp, under tarpaulins, clutching the last fragments of their belongings.

This landscape – where? the Middle East? Africa? – is the hellish setting for Arudpragasam’s small miracle of a debut, a novel that spans a mere twenty-four hours in these unimaginable circumstances and yet encompasses an extensive meditation on life and living. Opening with an almost unendurable scene at a clinic where amputations are done without anesthetic or proper instruments, it traces the world of a young man, Dinesh, a survivor whose mother was just one among numberless corpses left behind on a terrible flight from home to this current way station.

Innocent, introspective and alone, Dinesh works at the clinic as a distraction, and to keep him occupied during the day’s long hours. He has lost the ability to sleep. So he responds slowly when a man offers him the hand of his daughter – a stranger to Dinesh – in marriage. In a world where the rules of existence have been loosened to such a degree, an alliance between two previously unacquainted young people seems almost sensible – an act of connection and protection in a place and time when flesh and relationships can be shattered at any instant. And so it comes to pass that Dinesh and Ganga marry, as a means of sustaining each other in a place where sustenance scarcely exists.

Arudpragasam traces Dinesh’s day in the life with slow, lapidary, masterly skill. Limpid phrasing evokes the near-unhinged turn of underfed, traumatized Dinesh’s mind through a focus on minutiae – the mesmerizing sensation of comb tines on hair; the curiously reassuring feel of a talismanic brass door knob found in the ground. The details of life are sifted and considered like individual grains of rice. Breathing is scrutinized for its feeling, meaning, symbolism, eternal value.

Deliberately paced and unblinking, the narrative is nevertheless quiveringly tense in its description of the hours that Dinesh and Ganga share, fraught with hope, mystery, misunderstanding, release and eventually resignation. A trip to the well; the discovery of an injured bird – these minor episodes take on the vastness and core-stillness of meditative contemplation.

Brief but shattering, this poetic, philosophical, transporting work confronts the reader with the texture of life endured behind numbing, daily news headlines. What does it mean to be human when living under a rain of death? This most humane of novels offers an attempt at an answer.

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