REVIEW: Homesick by Roshi Fernando

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Pages: 288, Level: Easy

Book Description from Barnes & Noble:

In this stunningly assured debut work of fiction, Roshi Fernando weaves together the lives of an extended Sri Lankan family.

At Victor and Nandini’s home in southeast London, the New Year’s Eve celebration is under way. Everyone is gathered around- clinking glasses of arrack and whisky, eating freshly fried poppadoms, listening to baila music- waiting to ring in 1983. Upstairs, The Godfather is playing on repeat for a bedroom filled with teenagers drunk on pilfered wine. And in the middle of it all is sixteen-year-old Preethi, tipsy on youth and friendship and covert cigarettes, desperate to belong.

But what does that mean, to belong? As Preethi moves through her life- befriending the local outcast, revealing her brother’s deepest secret, struggling with her own unhappiness and through a souring marriage- this desire for acceptance remains the one constant, both for her and for everyone she knows. Homesick moves back and forth in time, between London and Sri Lanka, circling the people in Preethi’s world: her brother Rohan; her friends Nil, Clare, Deirdre, and Lolly; her aunty Gertie; and terrible cousin Kumar. Together, they are bound by this shared need to fit in somewhere, this rootless desire for a place to call home.

Gorgeously drawn, told with wit and pathos, this poignant narrative blends love with loss, politics with pop culture, tradition with youthful rebellion. Homesick is rich with insight and a kaleidoscopic view of contemporary immigrant life that introduces us to the work of Roshi Fernando, a remarkable new talent.

Homesick reads more like a collection of short stories that are tied together by one central family, Preethi’s family. The chapters tell the story of a different character, with multiple chapters told from Preethi’s point of view. Stories range from a wedding, would be terrorist, a rocky marriage, father trying to connect with his son, etc. Of course, that doesn’t begin to describe the true stories that are being told in these chapters.

I was selected to receive an advanced copy of Homesick to read and review. I’ll admit, when I first read the description of this book, it only sounded moderately interesting. I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a try. I was pleasantly surprised. There are some words I had to look up because I had no idea what they were- arrack, poppadoms- and sometimes I had a difficult time figuring out how the character of a certain chapter was related to the central character, Preethi. Once I gave up on the latter, I enjoyed the book tremendously. Towards the end you figure most of them out.

The underlying theme of all the stories is one of belonging, although it is sometimes subtle and not the obvious or predominant issue. Fernando’s subtlety is one of the things I enjoyed so much about the book. While it is supposed to be about Sri Lankan immigrants, most of the time I don’t even sense that. Some of the situations are universal and I can relate to them. Even if the sense of not fitting in is cultural for the characters of the book, anyone could easily substitute it for some other personal aspect that makes him or her feel like an outsider. Indeed in one of the chapters a couple is at a company Christmas party and one of the reasons the wife feels like an outsider is because it is her husband who works at the company.

In my opinion, the writing is phenomenal. I was reading along and then a sentence or paragraph stopped me in my tracks. I would go back and read it again because it felt so profound or beautiful. For example, at the very beginning: “Victor looks at her across the party, and a tenderness for her erupts from him, and to his embarrassment and surprise, he imagines their warmth in the dark, the smell of her neck, the soft flabby skin of her stomach, crushed and stretched and worn. And he sees around her a glow of pink and mauve, which takes his breath away.” Besides the fact that there are so many different emotions artfully packed into these two sentences, for me, the overriding beauty lies in something else. This is after the couple has been married for many years and his wife has had their children. The fact that he finds her stomach attractive although it is stretched and worn is just so beautiful. As a mother, I immediately understood what that meant and I loved Victor for it.

Another aspect of the book that I found extremely effective was that Fernando briefly jumps into the future, giving us a little glimpse of how everything turns out while at the same time sparking our curiosity by planting even more questions-

“It was this photograph- the one she had specifically asked her parents not to be taken, the one where Ian’s synthetic laughter screwed up his features and combined with her simple yet meaningful smile- it was this photograph that was to become everyone’s favourite. It would be the photograph that filled an antique silver frame at Longacre, Ian’s family home; it would be hung in a dark room; and indeed, in their own Clapham castle it would sit on a mantelpiece, dutifully dusted for the eighteen years they were married. Nil walked past it most mornings of her married life and did not register it, because if she did, out of the corner of her eye, she would see the tiny patch of red at the bottom corner of the picture, the sale sticker on the bottom of her right shoe, and she would remember the things she had left undone in her life, the things she had simply, carelessly forgotten.”

Why were they only married for eighteen years? What had she forgotten? Was that what broke up their marriage? Was one of them unfaithful? Did one of them die? While the issue of this chapter is resolved, it simply opens up a whole set of other issues that you know are going to have to be dealt with in the future. The book left me with so many loose ends and me antsy for the answers… sort of like life.

It may sound like boring life stories but I was surprised at how quickly I was sucked into them. I cared about the characters. I didn’t want to put the book down because I had to know what happened to them. I found myself relieved, heartbroken, and so much more. At many parts I was actually teary eyed for different reasons- sorrow, beauty, relief. It is a book that I will go back and read again, underlining the quotes that seem to speak to me personally. I could have easily continued describing this book for pages because there is so much more that I have not even touched here. Homesick is a moving book that draws out a myriad of emotions and I have already recommended it to several people. I hope you consider this your recommendation that convinces you to give the book a try; I think you will find it well worth your time and like me, will eagerly await Roshi Fernando’s next literary work.

Reviewed by Christina

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