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Novella set in London, with Sri Lankan flair

20th June 2023

Novel set in London, with Sri Lankan flair.

3* – The Mother Sun by Sui Annukka, novella set in London. Availalbe only as an audiobook. Narrated by Nimmi Harasgama.

Sui Annukka is the winner of the Women’s Prize Trust Discoveries award for unpublished writers and this novella is the first title from Audible’s collaboration with the Women’s Prize Trust.  For now it only appears as an audiobook. In many ways this is a curious decision, as sales will be limited and there will be no reviews on websites that don’t accommodate audiobooks, like Good Reads and books shops – chain and indie and of course – and TripFiction for the moment. Therefore the novella’s reach will be extremely limited.

The Mother Sun is billed as a novella and indeed it is comparatively short for an audiobook at 6 hours 43 minutes, where most novels are upwards of 8 hours. The price to buy it is comparatively expensive at £13.12 (as I write), available on Amazon (UK).

Surya is working in Colombo and jumps at the chance to attend a marketing conference in an airport hotel in London. However, she has another – and much more pressing – reason to travel to London, namely to find a particular young man, Rafe, who is 17 years old.  She thus stands outside the house where she believes he lives, espies him, expecting him to join the crowds of young students heading towards school. But he peels away and it soon becomes clear that he has a job as a barista in a local coffee shop. She follows him, girds her loins to enter the cafe, pluckily intervenes when a customer bullies him, and soon the two are chatting. He invites her to join him on a tour of ‘his’ London, which doesn’t include the famous sites but involves a visit to his elderly friend Edith.

It is also the eve of the conference’s party, a get together for participants, and Surya suggests he accompany her to the event. Before long they are in her hotel room, sorting out what they are both going to wear from a selection of her clothes…. Really? At this point, young Rafe has no idea that there is a blood connection with this woman, so it just feels singularly creepy. The reader understands that Surya gave birth to him, that he somehow ended up with James and Annabelle as parents but how that came about is at this point still a mystery – this is the hook that propels the story forward. Rafe does discover how and why and the trauma of discovery is never explored.

Sui Annukka “has brilliantly weaved in significant elements of Sri Lankan culture and the Sinhala language in a way that allows for culturally specific nuance…” said the marketing prose that introduced us to this novel. The narrator, Nimmi Harasgama, does a wonderful job of bringing the words to life. She beautifully pronounces the Sinhala when it appears in the text. And it is indeed the narrator who carries this story: she manages to keep the tale from falling flat as she narrates with such clarity of diction and inflection that one might just be able to overlook that this novella needed a much firmer editing hand. It hops around within the story, often without a neat elision between episodic chapters. An encounter with ‘raggers’ (a group of people who welcomes new students at a college – I had to look this up) is detailed at college, back in the day, and then the story takes off on a different trajectory as we discover the reason for Surya’s breakdown and on-going fragile state of mind.

The author dabbles with big themes like a gay relationship (essentially still illegal in Sri Lanka), racism, trauma, loss, boundary-setting, mental health, womanhood, the colonial legacy and more, and these all needed to be explored in greater depth to make the story feel whole. Generally, they just felt dropped in, a scatter gun approach, and I would have loved to hear more from the author about these aspects. Simply mentioning food from Sri Lanka (porridge with herbs, for example) and dressing traditions and women’s hairstyles, and weaving Sinhala phrases into the narrative (sometimes the meaning was unclear as there was no translation) – are all insufficient devices to create a narrative that is rich in cultural nuance,  more is needed to really bring cultural colour to the pages. It’s an uphill task given the choice of location for this novella.

For me this book fell between several stools. The writing is good and the author has talent, but the storytelling is fractured and misaligned. It felt at times that I was reading a Young Adult novel given the style, but then some of the themes raised don’t seem appropriate for that genre. It isn’t particularly strong on location or culture, although rainy London – where the majority of the story is set – comes through. From the blurb, this novel is not what I expected but once I revisited the cover – an eye-achingly amateurish design – my reservations started to coalesce.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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Thanks to Midas PR for arranging a free download of this title.

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