Saturday, February 20, 2010

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka

Not Quite Paradise is the memoir of Adele Barker's journeys in Sri Lanka, beginning in 2001, just three weeks after 9/11, and culminating in 2006 with a brief intermission in between the two.  She arrives with the intention of teaching literature at the University of Peradeniya, but is caught up in a war and way of life that she desperately tries to understand.

I say this is a memoir of her journeys, but mostly it is a memoir of Sri Lanka.  Barker gives many details about the history of the island, particularly the civil war between the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group fighting for an independent Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.  This war lasted over 20 years and was felt by all: violent election days, scattered land mines, curfews, "normal murders," and poverty.  Barker details her adjustment to daily life, but she could never be completely accepted by the native Sri Lankans because of her skin color; to be white was to be in a caste above others, to be seen as either a perpetual tourist, an aid worker, or of no threat to either side divided by civil war.  While she tried to break these stereotypes, in one respect by refusing to hire a housekeeper so she would not be seen as "British and colonial," she soon realizes that not providing this job keeps one more Sri Lankan unemployed.  She relents, and makes the most of her position.

When Barker returns to the island in 2005, it is to see the damage done by the tsunami of December 26, 2004, which killed 48,000 Sri Lankans in as little as 20 minutes.  Her goal was to walk the circumference of the island as much as possible, and it did seem possible, considering there was a cease-fire that appeared to be holding steady.  Barker travels through many cities, gathering people's stories of "when the water came to the land."  She researches why there was no early warning system and what the government was doing to prevent a catastrophe such as this from every happening again.  In her travels, she sees sides of the civil war that aren't publicized, at least not once one leaves the northern Jaffna peninsula: the way not all Tamils are Tigers, how the government was desperately trying to lay siege to the Tigers but in turn was laying siege to its own people, and how the Tigers were not always seen as the enemy by those who lived under their laws.

I went into this story thinking I was going to be experiencing a personal story of one person's journeys through a land that differs greatly from our own, and in a way that assumption was correct.  However, this is much more a story about Sri Lanka; we do not get a very good look at Adele Barker.  We know where she is from, that she has a son, and that she is a professor.  But that is about all we are told, and I believe the reason behind this is that we do not need to know the details of the person writing the story.  The story is about the people of Sri Lanka, their lives in a nation continuously torn apart, and how such a nation can come together, albeit briefly, when disaster strikes, and then just as quickly return to war.

Barker narrowly avoided disasters on a consistent basis.  There were many bombings, murders, mine explosions, and threats that could have kept her from ever finishing her book.  Thankfully, she was spared them all.  Her experiences made the story real, and were a reminder that tragedy is always close at hand in Sri Lanka, but it is also taken in stride.  This is a world I will never see for myself, but I was given a glimpse into its complexities and its beauty.  Barker seamlessly ties together everyday life against the backdrop of a war-torn nation, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at something only those brave enough to experience it can really comprehend.

4 out of 5 stars.  Barker's writing, while not poetic, is honest, thoughtful, and emotional.  I found myself rooting for her and the friends she made in Sri Lanka, as well as those who helped to guide her through her journeys.  I am thankful this book came to me because it is all too easy to sit in a country of freedoms and be ungrateful, while half a world away people struggle to survive.

This book was given to me by Beacon Press in association with Library Thing's Early Reviewers program.  No incentives were used to produce a positive review of this book.


  1. I loved your review of this book and I really want to read it. My parents are Sri Lankan Tamils who left in the 70s before things got really bad but I did have relatives there who had to live through the Civil War. Growing up here in the States I haven't really been able to understand how things are there so I think this book is an important one for me to read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book!

  2. Christina, I think this book would really give you insight into what they went through. The story touched me immensely, and I have no connection to Sri Lanka. I hope you enjoy it!