Have you ever read a book that you knew would completely fuck you up? Like, you’ve gone in knowing that the journey through the pages would be worth it, but your soul might not make it through to the final destination? Friends, I’ve read two of those books in recent times. One was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it on my honeymoon, and let me tell you, nothing puts a damper on marital bliss like a dystopian horror story that strips women down to their biological functions and wipes away their humanity. Probably not the best idea of mine, in hindsight, considering the very real implications of a Gilead-like future for the U.S., but oh well. A girl’s gotta read.
And the other book that destroyed me for a good few days? What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera, a Sri Lankan-American writer who also wrote Island of a Thousand Mirrors. I inhaled this gloriously horrific and anxiety-inducing novel in all of three hours, and then spent the next few hours being considerably stressed out. Tainted visions of my future children and my relationship with my husband all swirled around me in a storm of blue, as I lay in bed, petrified, at 2 a.m. Again, another poor life choice that I will hopefully not be repeating any time soon.
Let me tell you what this extraordinary novel is about before I turn you off of reading in general. Munaweera’s tale is a tragedy that begins in her protagonist’s white prison cell. The woman tells us that she’s been imprisoned for committing the most monstrous of crimes, and that this story is her attempt to reveal why she did what she did. Instead of outlining a confession, the unnamed protagonist unravels her life’s story in a series of memories and images, beginning as a young girl in Sri Lanka to an immigrant’s journey in America. Love, loss, and grief ensue in the pages that follow.
If that summary was too vague, I’m sorry, but as a reader who believes deeply in the experience of reading and unspooling the nuances of a story for herself, that’s literally the best, un-spoilerly paragraph about this novel that I can give you. But, what I can attempt to do is tell you why this novel had such a huge impact on me, and why I’m still feeling that impact a week later.
Munaweera unwraps the experience of being a young, non-white immigrant in this country with exquisite precision. Upon entering the hallowed hallways of school in the 1980’s, our nameless protagonist lives on the outskirts of American life, and feels more like an exotic animal at the zoo that no boy wants to date. When she grows into adulthood, and happens upon a great guy who happens to be white, she confesses to feeling a little bit lucky just to be “chosen by one of them.”
As someone who can relate deeply to both of those experiences, I can tell you that for many non-white immigrants or children of immigrants, the fact that you’re non-white and therefore other is an insistent part of your life, even if you’re not fully aware of it. Munaweera captures that slight feeling of ostracism so well, and What Lies Between Us managed to remind me about a lot of the racial and ethnic anxieties I endured and still endure to this day.
Another incredible thing about this novel is that even if you’re not an immigrant or a child of one, you’re still able to fully empathize with Munaweera’s protagonist because of how she tells the story. Munaweera breaks the story into vivid and palpable images of life, which teem with lust on one page and fear on the next. She roots her story in the experience of being human, and through this, What Lies Between Us becomes the best type of evidence against the wall-loving, divisive voices in our country right now. It reminds us that people are people, no matter where they’re from or how they’ve grown up. All people share the same fears and anxieties, and all people just want to love and be loved in return.
But the most incisive and, for me, gut-wrenching highlight of this book is its discussion of motherhood. What Lies Between Us is, at its core, a story about motherhood, and how being a mother changes and defines a woman’s life. In the first few pages of the novel, when the protagonist begins to tell her story in her cell, Munaweera unleashes an absolutely lethal description of being a mother in the United States. She writes that there is absolutely no way to be a good mother in this country, because to be a good mother, you have to be perfect. For the protagonist, even the smallest of failures or mistakes as a mother will indict you. She continues by reminding the reader that being a mother is essentially giving yourself entirely in the pursuit of a higher, more important end goal. And she lands the final punch by telling you that she is essentially in prison because she refused to do just that.
Like, damn girl, get out of my head! Somehow, Munaweera reached her hand right into my body and pulled out exactly what I fear about motherhood. And the fact that she is able to do that is incredible. The power of this novel is that it reveals the anxieties and implications of motherhood in such a real way. From beginning to end, Munaweera details everything that is glorious AND terrifying about being a mother. And for someone who is a bit tired of hearing that I’ll figure it out and that I don’t need to worry so much, I am so grateful to see my anxieties in print. Munaweera’s words remind me that my feelings, true or not, are valid and acceptable, and that is the hallmark of a really important book.
I have told you very little about what happens plot-wise in this book, but I am telling you that What Lies Between Us is SO worth the read on so many levels. One, you get to glimpse what it means to be a young immigrant in this country. Two, Munaweera immerses you in gorgeous images that burst with humanity. And three, if you have concerns about what it means to be a parent, then What Lies Between Us will assuage your fears by giving them an important voice.
Go read this book, because my review does not do it justice.