Roma Tearne, Mosquito
Publisher: Europa Editions
2008, 304 pages, paperback, $15.95
civil War, torture, and mass murder form the backdrop to Roma Tearne's debut novel, Mosquito. Set in Sri Lanka and Europe during the 1990s, Mosquito's primary story is the romance between novelist Theo Samarajeeva and his underage love interest, the artistic Nulani. Unfortunately, there's nothing new or interesting in the way Tearne presents Theo's and Nulani's affair. However, Tearne's startling use of crisp, erudite, and rhythmic language propels the novel forward, even when the plot runs out of gas.
Tearne's plot resembles that of Mario Vargas Llosa's recent novel, The Bad Girl. Both books contain similarly cliché love affairs between older artists and younger women, and both authors change the settings of their novels from their respective home countries to Europe in an effort to appeal to a broader audience. The sacrifice paid by Vargas Llosa and now by Tearne is that these new European settings become foils when compared with Vargas Llosa's beautifully detailed descriptions of his native Peru, and Tearne's hypnotically charged descriptions of her native Sri Lanka. Tearne's luminous descriptions can be found in the first paragraph:
The breeze had died down, the air had cooled, and the fishermen's sarongs slapped wet against their legs as they swung the boat above the water, to and fro and up and along the empty beach, scoring a dark, deep ridge in the sand. Often, before the monsoon broke, the sea was like a mirror. The sky appeared joined to it with barely a seam, there was a faint vibration of thunder and along the shoreline the air hung in hazy folds, suspended between land, and sea, and sky.
Tearne's settings of London and Venice appear flat when juxtaposed against her descriptions of Sri Lanka, and it seems obvious that she purposely crafted both the Western and Eastern settings to show a cold, unsympathetic Western society in opposition to the warm, inviting culture of her home country. This approach fails because Tearne focuses too much on material details, rather than showing emotional differences of characters living in separate cultures.
Mosquito does succeed on a language level, especially in this paragraph where Tearne uses common words to describe the brutality and senselessness of people being murdered and burned during Sri Lanka's Civil War:
The whole jungle seemed on fire, awash with the sour smells of tamarind and eucalyptus, and something else, something rotten and deep and terrifying. Hiding behind the clump of trees, Sugi recognized the smell [...] There was nothing he could do now. The soldiers stood at a safe distance from the bonfire. For a while they strutted around their vehicles, laughing hollowly, slapping each other on the back. In the moonlight Sugi could see their Kalashnikovs glinting. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, they piled into the jeeps and went with a screech of tyres, leaving skid marks on the road, their voices receding swiftly. All that was left was the outstretched arms of the flames, the moon as witness, and an unmarked, communal grave. Far away in the distance he could hear a faint lonely trumpeting. Somewhere, in some impenetrable corner of the jungle, an elephant was preparing to charge.
Writing like this makes Mosquito enjoyable, literary, and completely readable. But the rather unbelievable and unconvincing relationship between the main characters makes me wonder what the motivation was to include a romance in a literary novel when the only place this type of an affair seems appropriate (or possible) is within the pages of a commercial novel.