Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445
The terrorism which has thrived in Sri Lanka since the early 1980’s forms a backdrop for this novel, although the historical factions involved in its ongoing guerrilla war are never explicitly named. Instead, Ondaatje’s focus is on themes of family, history, identity, and the effects of violence on these important elements of humanity. The novel is developed with Ondaatje’s characteristic indirection, but it is told primarily from Anil’s point of view, moving backward and forward through her own history as she grapples with the problem of collecting evidence which will prove that the skeleton with which she is entrusted met with a recent and violent death.
Anil’s life has been privileged. She grew up in a well-to-do Sri Lankan family and studied first in London and then in the United States, where she participated eagerly in the strange community of forensic investigators. Now she has been called by a human rights organization to use her considerable analytical skills in her native country, a nation which feels familiar to her in many ways. She knows its language, food, clothing, and customs; she even has a few acquaintances left in the capital city. However, she is also aware that the country’s political turmoil means that no one can be taken at face value; no secret is entirely safe. For that reason she cannot feel quite sure that Sarath, the archaeologist with whom she must work, can be trusted when she realizes that the skeleton they have named “Sailor” was surely murdered in the near past. Nor can she be sure that Sarath is really cooperating as they try to identify the skeleton, the first step in assembling evidence which might locate and convict his killers.
Ondaatje’s descriptions of the novel’s Sri Lankan settings are particularly vivid, a product perhaps of both the author’s feelings about his homeland and his life as a poet, as well as a novelist. Thus the country’s greenery and flowers, its pools and ancient temples take on their own weight as characters in the work. Vision is often a powerful theme for Ondaatje; in this novel it is realized in the character of Ananda, a nearly blind sculptor whom Anil and Sarath hire to reconstruct a bust of Sailor in hopes that someone in the area will recognize him. Anil’s part of the novel concludes with her defeat by corrupt government officials, the same ones who probably ordered Sarath’s death. In the novel’s final images, Ananda has been hired to paint the eyes in a reconstructed statue of Buddha, thus using his art to confound the terrorists who destroyed the original.