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Sri Lanka good reads

Sri Lanka good reads

Travelling overseas is one of life's greatest pleasures, and the excitement begins way before your plane or train departs. As I research where to go, prioritise what to see and feed my excitement by reading articles or browsing the internet for photos, the weeks leading up to a holiday can be almost as exciting as the trip itself.

Books can be a fantastic way to fuel your curiosity, whether it's a fictional novel that conjures-up a vivid sense of your destination, the autobiography of a local or former resident, or an account of the country's past.

What's more, when I read about the places I plan to travel to, I always find that I get more out of my trip: cities are brought to life with history, unassuming villages can take on new appeal, and I have more to talk about with locals, know what wildlife to look for and am better aware of local customs.

With two months to go before I escape to Sri Lanka, I've lined up a reading list of the island's best-reviewed literature. I've already started chipping away at it:

Books I've read so far

  • Running in the family, by Michael Ondaatje [1993]

    In short: A tale of 1900s expat life in Sri Lanka.

    In detail: Beautifully written and full of references to places I plan to visit, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author returns to Sri Lanka having grown up here in the '40s and '50s. In this magical memoir, he retraces his family footsteps, examining the lives of his loving mother, alcoholic father and eccentric grandmother. His book explores the elegance, extravagance and antics of his family's life in 1900s Sri Lanka, while conveying the island's exotic heat, vivid colours and tropical wildlife.

    Why I liked it: Ondaatje's eccentric characters are brilliantly entertaining, and his descriptions are vivid. I particularly loved the depiction of his gin-drunk grandma floating through the tea hills during Sri Lanka's worst flood, and his evocation of the tropical Sri Lankan sweat running over his shoulders 'like a cracked egg.'

  • A Year in Green Tea and Tuk Tuks, by Rory Spowers [2007]

    In short: A modern-day account of building an organic farm in Sri Lanka.

    In detail: For a contemporary read about expat Sri Lankan life, this 2007 book by a BBC journalist and environmentalist charts his move to Sri Lanka. Uprooting his wife and two sons from London to live on an abandoned tea estate, Rory aims to establish a sustainable, organic farm – a plan, which is initially offset by the devastating 2004 Tsunami. A book that will particularly appeal to nature and eco-living fans, Rory's journal-style book is light-hearted yet sensitive.

    Why I liked it: An honest and inspiring read, Rory takes you on a rollercoaster ride of his successes, failures and emotions, as he creates his farm and Sri Lankan rebuilds itself. It's almost a practical guide for anyone who's ever dreamt of doing the same.

Next on my list

  • The village in the Jungle, by Leonard Woolf [1913]

    In short: A pioneering book about colonial rule

    In detail: The first novel by Virginia Woolf's husband broke new ground when it was published – previous novels about imperial countries had focussed on the colonialist's point of view only. Gathering first-hand insight during seven years of civil service in colonial Ceylon, he learnt to speak both Sinhalese and Tamil, then travelled the country dealing with tax, health, agriculture and justice problems. His book conveys the injustice of colonial rule through the lives of slash-and-burn villages, living in mud huts.

    Why it's on my list: Said to be one of Sri Lanka's best-loved books, reviewers say this novel gives a unique and important perspective of Sri Lankan life.

  • Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, by Paul Theroux [2009]

    In short: An on-the-ground account of travelling through Asia.

    In detail: Thirty years after writing The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux retraces much of his original journey. Travelling through Europe on the Orient Express, his itinerary includes Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, China and Japan. When he reaches Sri Lanka however, the island is recovering from the Tsunami, which hit twelve months before he arrived.

    Why it's on my list: I love Theroux's entertaining writing style, and am keen to gain a broader perspective of Sri Lanka within the wider context of Asia.

  • Sam's Story, by Elmo Jayawardena [2001]

    In short: A contemporary view of Sri Lankan life told by an illiterate houseboy.

    In detail: Winner of a literary prize, this story is set in 2001, when Sri Lanka had been war-torn for fifteen years. Sam is an illiterate houseboy from a small village who reveals the story of urban and rural life in modern-day Sri Lanka – a troubled country, scarred by conflict, racism and inequality.

    Why it's on my list: I'm intrigued by the lives of Sri Lanka's everyday people, and this short, prize winning novel is rumoured to reveal just that.

  • July, Karen Roberts [2002]

    In short: The tale of two neighbours, one Sinhalese, one Tamil, growing up together.

    In detail: Set in a Tamil/Sinhalese neighbourhood of Colombo, two sets of neighbours and their children are good friends but problems start when two of the children, of different ethnicities, fall in love.

    Why it's on my list: I'm keen to learn more about the relationship between Tamils and Sinhalese, and about Tamil communities living in southern Sri Lanka, while the north is their stronghold.

Other titles to check out

  • Anil's Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje [2000]

    An anthropologist working for a human rights group, visits Sri Lanka during the civil war to identify victims of the murder campaigns sweeping the island.

  • Cinnamon Gardens, Shyam Selvaduai [1999]

    A story of upper-class Sri Lankan families, arranged marriages and the culture and politics of 1920s Ceylon before independence.

  • Woolf in Ceylon – An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf-1904-1911, by Christopher Ondaatje [2006]

    A photo-led travelogue, which revisits Woolf's novel, The Village in the Jungle. Explores Woolf's life, his view of imperialism, and the transformation of Sri Lanka.

  • Mosquito, by Roma Tearne [2008]

    Shortlisted for the 2007 Costa Book Awards first Novel prize, Mosquito follows a widowed novelist who returns to his Sri Lankan homeland from Italy, to find the country in the throws of civil war.

  • The Golden Wave, culture and politics after Sri Lanka's tsnami disaster, Michele Ruth Gamburd [2013]

    A study by cultural anthropologist Michelle Ruth Gamburd. Six months after the 2004 Tsunami, Gamburd returns to a village she knows well and compiles the residents' stories, focusing on culture and politics in the aftermath of the disaster.

Lucy Grewcock

Recommended Deal

From £ 1009 per person
The ideal mix: Sri Lankan exploration followed by a relaxing beach stay

The ideal mix: Sri Lankan exploration followed by a relaxing beach stay

The tour element of the holiday will see you visit Sigiriya and Kandy before sinking your toes in Kalutara's beaches

Type: Tour
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Lucy Grewcock

The Escape Artist

One-off experiences, action-filled adventures and eye-popping cultural encounters: my kind of travel...

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