I was delighted to be sent the link to this wonderful review that focusses on the use of the omniscient voice in On Sal Mal Lane, by Michael Noll, for his “Learning to Write” series. Michael is the brains behind the site, Read to Write Stories. It came exactly as I was preparing a lecture on that particular topic for my students at the Loft Literary Mentor Series in Minneapolis. Here’s the beginning (below), and you can read the whole piece here. It seemed particularly serendipitous that this was posted on my father’s birthday, which also happens to be the date of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka, an event which is marked with great import in the novel itself.
One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. None of than the critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even).
Not many novels actually attempt an omniscient point of view. One that does is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane. It was published by Graywolf, and you can read an excerpt at that its website.
How the Novel Works
The novel is set in Sri Lanka, just before its recent civil war. Such a premise poses a particular challenge: the novel must focus on a few people who are affected by the war and also explain the origins, politics, and geography of the war. This can be difficult for any war but is especially difficult for a war that most Americans know little about. That ignorance is important because the novel is not a translation. Freeman was born in Sri Lanka but lives primarily in the U.S. and writes in English; the novel was published by an American independent press. So, how does Freeman convey the basic outline of the war? With an opening worthy of Star Wars.