This haunting literary mystery (307 pages) was published in April of 2001 by Vintage. The book takes you to Civil War-era Sri Lanka. Melissa read Anil's Ghost and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
This dream-like detective story — during the Sri Lankan Civil War of the 1980s and ’90s — addresses themes like trust and deceit, the futility of war, and the way conflict can forge or dissemble identity. And because it’s by Michael Ondaatje, it does all of that with literary flair.
The heroine of the story is Anil, a Sri Lankan forensic anthropologist returning to her homeland after a 15-year absence. She’s part of a United Nations mission to investigate suspected human rights abuses; the government has paired her with an archaeologist named Sarath.
To say trust between the two is in short supply would be an understatement. Adding to the fraught atmosphere is their work lab, an abandoned luxury liner that once carried posh passengers, but has been moored and gutted, transformed into a dark, clanking home base for their work.
When they discover a recent skeleton buried among much older bones — in an area accessible only to government reps — Anil and Sarath suspect the remains could prove publicly that the government is involved in mass political murders. The first step in this process is identifying the bones. So they nickname the skeleton Sailor and embark on a dangerous mission to find the truth.
Along the way, they fun into both friends and maybe-foes with their own interesting emotional baggage. They turn to Sarath’s former teacher. He’s fallen from grace within his professional circles and makes his home in an abandoned monastery with only his niece for company. They also enlist the help of another broken man — an artist who’s suffered devastating tragedy — and have significant run-ins with Sarath’s brother, a doctor grappling with the horrors of the civil war.
The primary character, present in every scene, is Sri Lanka: its politics, scenery, climate, and sense of expansiveness and claustrophobia are vividly drawn. You will be transported to the ghostly ship, the wartime hospital, the empty manor house, and the monastery in the forest.
Although the scaffolding of the story is a mystery plot, it’s a slow burn. A generous amount of time is devoted to revealing (or not) the characters’ motivations, exploring their relationships, and understanding the ins and outs of their work. It revels in the fascinating procedural details. At times the investigation recedes to the background while the characters live in the moment and revisit their pasts. There’s a soft breathlessness, not from the pace of the plot, but from the characters’ charged emotions. Fear and unease and tricky relationships are all around.
Michael Ondaatje has said this was the most painful novel he’s written. It’s haunting, shadowy, a bit hallucinatory — but not without glimmers of light and beauty. When the action comes, it hits hard, with the last act playing out like a thriller right up to its very satisfying, life-affirming ending.
She would have preferred to walk into the streets after dinner, for she loved the closing up of stores. The streets dark, the fall of electric light out of the shops. It was her favourite time, like putting away the senses one by one, this shop of drinks, this cassette store, these vegetables packed away, and the street growing darker and darker as she walked on. And a bicycle riding off with three sacks of potatoes balanced on it into even purer darkness. Into the other life. That existence. For when people leave our company in our time we are never certain of seeing them again, or seeing them unaltered. So Sirissa loved the calm of the night streets that no longer had commerce in them, like a theatre after the performance was over. — Michael Ondaatje
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