Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Bone China, by Roma Tearne. Europa Editions (2009), 378 pages.

It was strange reading this just two months after Pharmakon, because the two books are really quite similar, despite taking place in different countries. Both are primarily about family relationships, both books follow the family over the course of fifty years (actually, closer to seventy years in the case of Bone China, since the story begins in 1939), and both feature a charismatic talking bird as an important member of the family (an African grey in Pharmakon, a mynah bird in Bone China). Anybody who enjoyed one of these books should definitely read the other.

This is essentially a story about the many tangled ways in which family members interact with each other over the course of their lifetimes—through marriages and children, disgust for the sisters-in-laws, secret affairs, drunkenness, siblings who stop speaking to each other, violent deaths that are never spoken of….

It’s also a story about the family’s ambivalent relationships with two places—Sri Lanka and England. Most of the characters are born in Sri Lanka, a few move to England, and others are born in England to parents who are later horrified to see their offspring taking on English culture; in their mind England was only meant to be temporary.

The writing is excellent. My only complaint is that the author assumes readers already know all about Sri Lankan history. A few unobtrusive explanations would have improved things enormously.  The fact that the family is Tamil, for example—it is assumed that I would know exactly how this ethnicity affects their standing in Sri Lankan society, both before and after British rule; what the social ramifications are of dating somebody who’s not Tamil; and so on. Who knew that Tamils and Sinhalese have been fighting each other, and Tamils are now considered second-class citizens (though apparently not during British rule)? I only know this now because I did some research halfway through the book; I wish I had been able to learn the necessary background information through the story.

The author is, however, quite skilled at describing the sights, sounds, and smells of Sri Lanka. Highly recommended.

There comes a time in a woman’s life when her age begins to mean a great deal to her, and sadly this time had arrived for Hildegard. What could she have done? Her skin was still supple; her hair had no hint of grey. She had no children. Who would have thought this could have become a problem? Was every woman on this wretched island expected to be a sacred cow? Hildegard, her slim childless figure belying her age, wondered what she had done. They all clearly thought, as she had begun to feel herself, that she had seduced Thornton, instead of the reality, which was the other way round. Hildegard, whose eyes kept filling up, unaware of the effect it was having on Uncle Innocent, decided it was time to leave. She looked at Thornton for support but there was a vacant spot where Thornton’s emotions should have been. So Hildegard left in a way that would be remembered afterwards, in silence and with dignified speed.

Reviewed by Donna Long