Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: Not Quite Paradise by Adele Barker

Adele Barker is an American who went to Sri Lanka on a Fulbright to teach university for a year immediately following the terror of Sept. 11. She traveled back there again after the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. This book, part memoir, part travelogue, part political history tries to marry the two experiences and to illuminate Sri Lanka for the westerner.

In the first portion of the book, Barker arrives in Sri Lanka with her fifteen year old son and faces some of the culture shock inevitable to anyone moving from a familiar culture to an unfamiliar one. Instead of staying in the city, she and Noah move further into the country, to the town close to her university. This takes them farther from the ex-pat community and enables them to meet and become involved in the daily lives of the Sri Lankans around them. It also forces Barker to learn Sinhalese quicker in an effort to communicate. Her observations about the people and the customs around her are interesting and often lead her to wander into the history of Sri Lanka (once Ceylon). In addition to this history, she finds herself interested, saddened, and horrified by the ongoing violence between factions of Sinhalese and Tamils, continuing to wage a civil war that rends family, land, and a sense of oneness. The end of her subsidized year approaching, she sends her son home and soon thereafter follows him. This happens very abruptly in the book, cutting short any continued tales of daily life in Kandy, which was a shame as the rhythm of life in other places is so very fascinating.

The second part of the book opens with the news of the tsunami and Barker's unfolding knowledge of the devastation. She worries for the friends she's made, frantically calling and e-mailing to find out their fates. And eventually she makes her way back to this island that has so captured her, this time without her son. She meanders around the island, needing to see the impact on the people of the "day the sea came to the land" for herself. She hears and recounts tales of new misses, amazing luck, and stumbles on the sorrow of hearing that someone she knew daily had disappeared forever. She examines the good and the inefficiencies of the aid proffered this tiny island nation and laments the misunderstandings about the survivors' needs and continued displacements of the people. She doesn't probe too hard at the psychological remains, knowing that this is not her story. And she does, on this sojourn, go to the war torn portions in the north of the island to see the perspectives from there not only from the tsunami but also from decades of unrelenting war.

The book is a fairly complete short history of the island with political information evenly interspersed. Where it tends to fall short is on the memoir side. While Barker mentions her friendship with many local people, she doesn't really bring those people alive for the reader. And she is remarkably reticent about her own and her son's personal lives while there aside from the initial adjustment to a very foreign culture. Despite this lack, I did enjoy the book and certainly feel more educated about the state of an island nation about which I previously knew very little. Sri Lanka has always felt a little exotic to me and while it probably still would were I ever to visit, its current events are definitely more familiar to me after having read this book. The two portions of the book hang together awkwardly since the two sojourns were made for such disparate reasons but read more as two separate journeys connected only by country and author, they are fine. People looking for a true memoir or ones who want more of the personal should be warned that that is not a strength of this book before reading it. But it is a fascinating glimpse into another culture nevertheless.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers from sending me a review copy of this book.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating read. i can still remember where I was when I heard about the Tsunami - how interesting this book sounds. Thanks for sharing


  2. This book sounds amazing! I have to look this one up. I was on a beach when the Tsunami struck, just a couple of miles away from another beach, where most of the destruction happened! And I didn't have a clue! So I'm definitely keen to read this one.


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