The Story of a Brief Marriage, the debut novel from Anuk Arudpragasam (who will be speaking on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sept. 18), takes place over the course of less than 24 hours. We follow Dinesh, a young man who has lost his entire family in Sri Lanka’s civil war and now lives in a makeshift camp with other evacuees, driven toward the coast by an advancing army, numbly passing his days trying to help the perpetually wounded, shifting nearly mutely between the baseline tasks of survival–eating, sleeping, somehow passing the hours.
The anxious tedium changes when he marries Ganga, a young woman in the same circumstances. This is not a tender account of passion blooming in the most unlikely of places–Ganga’s father brings the two together out of practicality to help both of them avoid conscription by the rebel army, and because he would like very much to die knowing that his daughter has a husband.
Fans of Nicholson Baker will hear echoes of that writer’s obsession with daily minutia in the fluid stream of consciousness. We dive deep into Dinesh’s inner life as he moves through his day, which begins with the horrific aftermath of artillery fire on the camp, and ends with the same. While the routines of daily life remain, they’ve been stripped of all extraneous movement and color. Contemplating his impending marriage, Dinesh realizes that he may be required to speak to Ganga in a non-utilitarian manner, and wonders if he is even capable of this human activity any longer:
That in ordinary life people kept talking long past any ostensible need or purpose there could be no doubt, though what they actually spent so much time speaking about Dinesh didn’t have any idea. It was as though in all his memories of people talking the mouths were moving but no sounds were coming out. What they might have been saying he couldn’t guess, for what after all could there have been to talk about?
Arudpragasam is a doctorate student in philosophy at Columbia, and in passages like this, that influence rises to the surface. Dinesh’s reflection on the purpose and nature of conversation flows on for several pages.
In a different sort of book, these lines of investigation might feel contrived, but the way Arudpragasam balances the banal with the horrific, tracing back the steps in the evacuation from the village Dinesh lived in with his mother, their flight, abandonment of their possessions and ultimately her death, simultaneously pulls back each layer of comfort and nurture a human can survive without, and what each successive loss does to that life.
As Dinesh contemplates the inevitability of his own death, Arudpragasam writes:
And so, in a way Dinesh was lucky, lucky that it had been so recently that he’d seen his mother, lucky that she was still fresh beneath his skin. In a way he would be lucky even if her were to die soon, for unlike those children in normal places who would live for several decades after the death of their parents his body would not forget the mother with whom he’d spent all his life.
I won’t lie, The Story of a Brief Marriage is an exquisite, but harrowing read. It’s a small story ensnared in the midst of a larger conflict and it’s a stunning reminder of how very many of those there are in our world at every single moment.