Book Review: This Divided Island

This Divided Island by Indian journalist Samanth Subramanian is a unique blend of narrative nonfiction, memoir and research. Subramanian moved to Sri Lanka in 2011 and this book is a product of his extended stay on the island nation during that time.

Subramanian does a nice job of capturing life in post-war Sri Lanka. He manages to blend a range of personal interviews with the country's political history. He's an ethnic Tamil, but his book is consistently balanced. In fact, he has nothing nice to say about the Tamil Tigers, the separatist group that fought for a separate Tamil state in the country's north and east from 1983 until 2009 when the Sri Lankan military crushed the insurgency. During the end of the war, horrible acts were committed by Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers; Subramanian captures some of the appalling transgressions of both sides in his book.

Importantly, Subramanian goes beyond the war itself. He describes what it's like to live in Sri Lanka, as a sort of post-war snapshot, through his interactions and the lives of ordinary people. And he traveled widely to make that happen. Frankly, too much is written on Sri Lanka from either a Colombo-centric (Colombo is the capital city) or Tamil-centric point of view (Tamils are the largest ethnic minority in the country and Tamil civilians are the group that suffered the most as a result of the civil war). The book is a series of stories that touches on many salient issues in post-war Sri Lanka including militarization, disappearances, religious intolerance and reconciliation.

Subramanian weaves in numerous details and provides context and insight without being pedantic. This isn't a short book, but he describes the richness of the country as concisely as one could hope to. There are things to be learned about ethnicity, discrimination, nationalism and identity politics.

There are lessons to be learned from Sri Lanka - in all its complexity and violence. Subramanian has written a thoughtful, excellent book which provides insight into the critical issues that the country continues to struggle with. Equally important is how well the author tells Sri Lanka's broader story through individual people. This Divided Island reveals how conflict shapes peoples' lives and shows how history can frame the present and what is to come.