THE WATER DIVINER AND OTHER STORIES
By: Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer
Published: October 15, 2018
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read another book published by the University of Iowa Press. I love sharing good things happening in our state and even though this author isn’t from Iowa, her book THE WATER DIVINER AND OTHER STORIES won the 2018 Iowa Short Fiction Award. That immediately intrigued me and then when I realized all the stories were about people from Sri Lanka I was even more interested. I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure where Sri Lanka was until I looked it up. It’s a small country/island southeast of India. I don’t know much about that country except when I look at a map, it is full of cities and makes me think that there are lots of people in a small space and likely a lot of poverty. The fifteen stories in this collection feature Sri Lankan immigrants. Each of them come from different backgrounds and ages, but their stories seem to have a running theme, there is a decision to be made that can affect someone’s life forever. Some of the situations are quite depressing yet others may inspire you or even make you laugh. But, one thing they all do is leave you hanging. That’s the beauty of these short stories. Each one leaves you wanting to know more.
Many of the characters in these stories are from Columbo, the Capital. The title story, “The Water Diviner” features a widow who has moved to the United States from Columbo to be with her daughter. She is fixated on watching a TV show with an evangelizing preacher who is claiming the final days are here. When the end of days begins to get closer, Kusuma realizes maybe she has been missing out and it wouldn’t be so bad if the end didn’t come. Another story shows that in the Sri Lankan culture it is very difficult to cross class divisions when a former Sri Lankan maid marries an American professor and she is considered equal to people she formerly waited on. My favorite was “The Rat Tree” that shared the story of a young woman who worked as a prison counselor. She had to choose whether to walk under the rat tree and risk having a rat fall on you or take the longer route around the outdoor area and be catcalled by all the prisoners. It was inspiring to see the way this counselor came out of her shell during her time at the prison.
In all of these stories, the author immerses you in the character. The stories are short so you don’t have a lot of time to get to know someone and their “why” for doing something, but Ruvanee has the skill of placing the reader in the setting and taking us along for the ride. Since the stories do not connect, you can certainly read a story or two and then come back later and pick up another one. I am a bit more knowledgeable about Sri Lanka now and reading these stories have caused me to do some more research on the country’s history. The Iowa Short Fiction Award is offered to a writer who hasn’t yet published a book of fiction. The prize is a book contract and I’m pleased to say that the author has a book set to be published this next June, THE MASK COLLECTORS. This too has a Sri Lankan connection.
If you are looking for a book to get you out of your box of typical reading material, I suggest giving THE WATER DIVINER AND OTHER STORIES a try. The love, devotion, shame, and frustration each of these characters feel will leave the reader with a new understanding of the immigrant’s life in the United States.
Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer grew up in Sri Lanka and lived in India, Thailand, Canada, and Australia before settling in the United States. Her short fiction has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and her essays and short stories have appeared in numerous publications. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Competition in 2004 and the Iowa Short Fiction Award in 2018. She has a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago and has also written reference books and psychology articles. She teaches at New York University. For more information, check out her website, HERE.
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