About the Book
Growing up in the lagoon town of Batticaloa, a young girl, with an unquenchable curiosity and love of the natural world, is entangled in the trauma and turmoil of the Sri Lankan civil war.
Uprooted from everything she holds dear, tragedy and betrayal set in motion an unforgettable odyssey.
Torn from east to west, struggling with what it means to belong, she desperately seeks a way home to the land of the singing fish.
Format: Paperback (320 pages) Publisher: époque press
Publication date: 23rd June 2022 Genre: Literary Fiction
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The protagonist of the book is Mila, a young Sri Lankan girl. The fact that Mila directly addresses the reader, whom she has named ‘Shi’ meaning breath of life, gives the book a very intimate feel.
The author confides that she has always been magnetised by the concept of refuge and Mila’s earliest refuge is her father’s library, his ‘inky jungle’, a place crammed full of books, a ‘forest of reworked trees’. The room also contains Mila’s own personal little hideaway. Her father’s stories and the facts he relates from his encyclopedia feed Mila’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge. She develops a passionate interest in animals, both vertebrate and invertebrate, transfixed by the intricacies of their anatomical structure and habits. Comparisons between animal and human behaviour become a key part of how she sees the world. So a shop owner who has set up a line of teddy bear ‘customers’ for her toddler to practice serving reminds Mila of the way meerkats teach their pups to hunt, and a man singing songs that his listeners later find themselves humming calls to mind how humpback whales spread their melodies to other whales far across the ocean.
Although we sometimes talk about people behaving like animals very rarely does animal behaviour descend to the level of cruelty inflicted by humans, as Mila soon discovers. The peace of her childhood is disrupted in the most profound way when the Sri Lankan civil war reaches her home town of Batticaloa. The comparison between the natural beauty of the country and the ugliness of war is starkly depicted.
Suddenly Mila is alone and forced to fend for herself. ‘War strips and chews away everything you’re sure of and vomits out a perturbing sort of uncertainty.’ Betrayed by someone who preys on Mila’s vulnerability, she finds herself thousands of miles from home, a victim of modern slavery. The next few years test Mila’s strength of will and resilience. Unwilling to trust any offer of help in case it ends in another betrayal, she lives a hand to mouth existence on the streets where every day is a struggle to survive.
Eventually she finds a refuge, one that neatly echoes her father’s library. It’s a place that not only provides her with a place of safety and a space to heal but offers her literary nourishment. ‘Chunky stewing tomes and spines that flaked away like almond shavings. Old, new, spiced and crumbling fellows, all bustling together; real breathing books.’ Gradually Mila is coaxed out of the shell she has contructed around herself and presented with the possibility of returning home to Sri Lanka. However, there is a further journey for Mila to make and a discovery that will bring home the terrible cost of war, whilst also demonstrating that with time and patience there is the possibility of healing.
It is impossible to write a review of Seek The Singing Fish without mentioning the beautiful, lush prose that seems to flow effortlessly from the author’s pen. For example, this mouthwatering description of wares displayed in a local market. ‘Cashew apples, avocado, and sweet citrus carambola oozed beside guavas, pineapples and spiky rambutan. Possum purple passionfruit jostled with jackfruit, plump mangos beamed by breadfruit while red lady papayas sang sweetly to passing nostrils.’ Don’t you just love the image of fruit jostling, beaming or singing?
As Mila warns the reader at the beginning of the book, it’s not a ‘polished little tale wrapped neatly in a bow but an untamed eruption’. Mila’s story is harrowing at times, not least because it is based on real life experiences, but it is infused with an appreciation for the natural world. I thought Seek The Singing Fish was a hugely impressive debut novel.
My thanks to Seán at époque press for my digital review copy.
In three words: Powerful, moving, lyrical
About the Author
Roma Wells is a Sri Lankan and Irish writer with a family heritage entwined with wild animals and sectarian conflict. Roma studied International Relations at Cambridge University and has worked in journalism, foreign affairs and international development. She is happiest scribbling under trees and at home you will find her bonding with an array of local wildlife. Seek The Singing Fish is Roma’s debut novel.