River of Ink
by Paul M. M. Cooper
Rating: 4 Stars
‘In thirteenth-century Sri Lanka, Asanka, poet to the king, lives a life of luxury, enjoying courtly life and a sweet, furtive love affair with a palace servant, a village girl he is teaching to write. But when Magha, a prince from the mainland, usurps the throne, Asanka’s role as court poet dramatically alters. Magha is a cruel and calculating king–and yet, a lover of poetry–and he commissions Asanka to translate a holy Sanskrit epic into the Tamil language spoken by his recently acquired subjects. The poem will be an olive branch–a symbol of unity between the two cultures.
But in different languages, in different contexts, meaning can become slippery. First inadvertently, then deliberately and dangerously, Asanka’s version of the epic, centred on the killing of an unjust ruler, inspires and arouses the oppressed people of the land. Asanka must juggle the capricious demands of a king with the growing demands of his own political consciousness–and his heart–if he wishes to survive and imagine a future with the woman he loves.
The first novel from a remarkable young writer, River of Ink is a powerful historical tale set in the shadow of oppression–one with deep allegorical resonances in any time–celebrating the triumph of literature and love…’
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley, what follows is my own opinion.
This was a bit out of my usual genre safety zone – but I’m so glad I requested it as it was an intriguing read.
I’d seen this kicking around my twitter feed for a while – the cover was beautiful and I was intrigued by the mention of a poet main character (we’re not a profession that crops up very much), so I snapped it up. I didn’t know anything else about it beyond that so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I like doing this with books sometimes, once a book has manage to snag my attention I don’t read anymore promotional material – not even read the blurb – then I just see where it takes me.
What I got was a sweeping tale of changing regimes exploring the difficulty of translation and the overwhelming power of language. The complex cultural politics of Sri Lanka were evoked through some beautiful imagery and it really felt like a story told by a person for whom words were their world. It’s one of those books where you can honestly feel the importance of every sentence.
Cooper conjures up a highly complete world in a really interesting time period. I felt like I knew the city and the surrounding area and it got to the point where I could place where any character was through a snippet of description. That’s something very rare in a book, so I must take my hat off to the author for mastering that.
The book opens with our main (quite privileged) character ‘Asanka the poet’ witnessing the invasion of his country by a stronger military power. In the confusion that follows he fears for his life and that of his lover, whilst being drawn into the unfolding intrigue at court. This in itself is an interesting plot, but I also loved the finer details of the society that Cooper included – particularly the intricacies of ink making and the complex hierarchy of different classes using different kinds of ink.
Possibly my favourite thing about the book was that there was a very strong sense of the story overtaking the lives of the characters. Asanka, despite being its author/translator, ultimately becomes it’s servant and an unwitting instigator of rebellion. I’ve always been interested in the concept that a text takes on a life of its own once it had been written, with each reader finding something different.
However, this is not a perfect novel. I do have a few quibbles.
There’s an interesting narrative conceit running throughout the book, where the story is told by I (Asanka) to you (Sasari). I really enjoyed this and it fit very well with the novel’s concern with storytelling. But there is a downside to it: because we know Asanka is narrating the tale from some point in the future, I struggled to really feel his desperation/fear for his life. The foreknowledge of his survival combined with his innately selfish nature means that is hard to feel sympathy towards him – indeed it seems to heighten his cowardice. I’m still in two minds about this because I do like the idea of an unlikely hero – someone drawn into prominence completely by accident – but the truth is I found it very hard to like Asanka, regardless of his circumstances.