Reviewed: Marriage of a Thousand Lies by: SJ Sindu Published by: Soho Press
Marriage of a Thousand Lies by debut novelist SJ Sindu is a multi-generational story of a Sri Lankan-American woman and her family coming to terms with her sexuality in the wake of the wedding of her childhood best friend and former lover.
Lakshmi, called “Lucky” by those close to her, comes home to help her mother care for her ailing grandmother. While there, she learns her childhood best friend (and lover, in her teenage years) is about to embark on an engagement her parents arranged. Lucky is a queer woman, married to a gay Sri Lankan man named Kris, to appease her family. She and Nisha rekindle their affair as they plan her wedding, and Lucky considers what it would take to tell the truth to her whole family about who she really is. She is passive and struggles with her sense of self—she is unemployed with no clear career path, and only feels truly alive when playing rugby with friends, or performing the traditional dances she did with Nisha when they were young. Lucky struggles to feel accepted in her family and their Sri Lankan community—a group she is not even sure she wants to be a part of.
The novel is as much about familial tradition as it is about sexual identity and has the most substance when discussing the circumstances that surrounding Lucky’s family. When Sindu writes of the Sri Lankan civil war that brought her parents and a few extended family members stateside, we see what Lucky is up against—though her family’s tradition is stifling, it is all her parents have and they will fight to keep it. Lucky’s mother, whose husband left her for her best friend, is ostracized by her community for being a divorced woman. She feels unwelcome at religious and cultural events, if she attends them at all. Lucky feels equally like a fish out of water for her queerness and un-femininity, and her false marriage. Though the two have shared similar experiences with exclusion and harsh judgment, they cannot see eye to eye, or identify with each other. When she lectures Lucky on the importance of community acceptance, it is not because she doesn’t want Lucky to live her life as a queer woman, it is because she knows the emotional toll that exclusion can take. When Lucky accompanies her father and stepmother to temple, we get a lot of historical backstory about Hinduism, and western colonialism in south Asia. Though not explicitly stated, we understand that this western oppression that lasted for centuries (and still lasts today) mirrors the oppression Lucky and Nisha feel as queer women in Sri Lankan families.
The story loses steam with Lucky herself. She is passive, both when facing her parents and Nisha, and in making her own decisions. She has carried a torch for Nisha since they were teenagers, but holds herself back when they are together. They’ll have sex, but Lucky will stop, citing either her own sham marriage or Nisha’s impending engagement. She acts nobly in those circumstances, but not in her own self-interest. She goes out to a lesbian bar with Nisha’s friends, and tries to let loose by dancing with another woman but stops herself, though she enjoys it. Sindu could do with more character development. Though we see the action through Lucky’s eyes, it is hard to see why she is still in love with Nisha, who frequently behaves like a bratty and flighty child. Her sister, a nomadic painter, estranges herself to have a child with a man her parents don’t approve of. That journey itself could be two or three novels. Her parents’ immigration to the United States could equally fill volumes. But this is Lucky’s story, and her family is relegated to a few quick pages and comments now and again. One of the most standout scenes in the novel occurs toward the end. For a story about sexuality, there is very little actual sex. When Lucky and her husband have sex in the hopes of getting pregnant to appease her family, it is written with the uncomfortable graphic intensity not only of a person having sex when they don’t want to, but also a queer woman knowing she is having sex with the wrong partner. Though painful to witness, it serves as an impetus for Lucky to be honest with her community about who she is, and to be honest with herself about what she deserves.
The novel takes its title from a Tamil phrase, roughly translated as “A thousand lies can make a marriage.” This, obviously, refers to Lucky’s marriage, and Nisha’s impending marriage. But it also refers to the countless other marriages out there borne of the same reasons Lucky and Nisha found themselves in their marriage—tradition and fear. At times the pacing feels clunky and the exposition spoon-fed. But that’s understandable—we see the action unfold through Lucky’s eyes, and familial issues are messy and clunky themselves. That, however, should not be deter anyone from spending time with any work like this one, as stories like this are important. At its most simplistic, watching a young queer woman stand up for who she truly is at the risk of losing their family could inspire someone in desperate need to do the same. It is not easy to defy millennia of culture and traditions, many of which are rooted in oppression themselves. Lucky is not the only person who tried to reconcile her otherness with her family’s beliefs, and those who in her position who feel held back by fear of exile or a worse outcome need to know that they can defy what they think made them to actually be who they are.
Cassandra Baim grew up outside of Chicago and earned a BA in English from Syracuse University. She has previously been published on Medium and The Flexist. When she’s not selling books at New York’s most famous bookstore, she enjoys biking across the Brooklyn Bridge and teaching her cat to play fetch.