There’s no better way to get under the skin of Sri Lanka than by eating its food, speaking to its people and living its culture. How can one try to understand the complex island nation before arriving on its verdant soil? With books, of course.
Reading volumes penned by Sri Lankan writers – or by those who have fallen under the country’s magnetic spell – is the perfect way to peek behind the cultural curtain ahead of your visit.
With that in mind, here are five of the best books to read before you travel to Sri Lanka. Or, indeed, on the plane.
Reef — Romesh Gunesekera (1994)
Reef is a lyrical novella filled with the aromas of young chef Triton’s southern Sri Lankan cooking – and with musings on the shifting patterns of the sea with which his marine biologist employer, Mr Salgado, is fascinated. Shortlisted for the 1994 Booker prize, this is a beautiful, reflective coming-of-age story set against the growing tensions of the decades leading to the Sri Lankan civil war. A quarter of a century after it was first published, Reef retains its enduring popularity and has become a Sri Lankan classic — as, of course, has its author Romesh Gunesekera, whose Monkfish Moon and Noon Tide Toll are also well-worth seeking out.
The Amazing Racist — Chhimi Tenduf-La (2015)
Penned by a British-Tibetan, Chhimi Tenduf-La, who moved to Sri Lanka aged sixteen, The Amazing Racist is equal parts hilarious and poignant. When English teacher Eddie Trusted falls in love with the beautiful Menaka he is forced to contend with her intimidating father’s absolute opposition to the match, setting the stage for delights, disasters and some intriguing home truths. Playing out largely in Colombo, Tenduf-La’s novel captures the chaos and charm of his adopted country through warm, witty and wonderful storytelling, making this the perfect fast-paced pick for the beach or a long train trip.
Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka — John Gimlette (2017)
British writer and barrister John Gimlette explores Sri Lanka’s turbulent history through his enthralling journey around the island. He details cinnamon plantations and tea fields, sacred sites and picture-perfect beaches, as well as the striking flora and fauna which fill Sri Lanka — elephants, snakes, birds and leopards included. Meeting movers and shakers — from friendly farmers and bizarre drivers to former presidents and legendary cricketers – while retracing ancient trades routes and seeking to unravel the secrets of this beguiling nation, Gimlette offers readers and fellow travellers an unparalleled insight into post-civil war Sri Lanka. At times humorous, often sobering, this is a vivid, well-researched and highly entertaining narrative.
Chinaman — Shehan Karunatilaka (2012)
Sri Lanka is a country with cricket in its blood and there’s no better ode to the island’s favourite sport than Shehan Karunatilaka’s mad, funny and fabulous novel. Old W.G. is utterly obsessed with the mysterious Pradeep Mathew, whom he considers to be Sri Lanka’s greatest cricketer. His determination to trace the mysterious bowler takes the reader from arrack-infused afternoons on De Saram Road and the ecstasy of Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup win to tunnels under cricket grounds and dodgy deals with match-fixing criminal masterminds. With a larger-than-life cast of characters and a real love of the game, Chinaman is both a brilliant read for existing fans and an excellent introduction for those who, though absolute cricket novices, know a good book when they see one.
Many Roads Through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature — ed. Shyam Selvadurai (2014)
One of the best-loved writers of the Sri Lankan diaspora, Shyam Selvadurai — author of Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens — has assembled this terrific array of post-independence poetry, short stories and prose extracts to create a dazzling compendium of Sri Lankan literature. A literary guidebook of sorts, this is the perfect tome to dip into again and again. Pieces written in English form the bulk of the book, but translations of Sinhala and Tamil writing also feature, offering a broader glimpse into the Sri Lankan literary consciousness. From haunting civil war poetry to witty tales of growing up in Colombo, Many Roads through Paradise reveals the Sri Lankan experience to the reader in its myriad, magical forms.