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It’s the name “The Frangipani Year” that strikes out. Living in Sri Lanka since the year 2000, it’s the simple frangipani flower that allures me the most and is my absolute favourite.
This debut novel by Alexandra Harris is about love and aid work in post-tsunami Aceh. The 2004 tsunami was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, claiming more than 200,000 lives and causing unimaginable destruction and devastation in South Asia. Sri Lanka was one of the worst affected countries.
Alexandra’s story, though set mainly in Indonesia, could well have been set in Sri Lanka, Thailand or India. It is a first person narrative of Angela, an American researcher for the UN, who finds herself flying into the devastated region of Banda Aceh, one year after the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Having grown up in Jakarta as a child, Angela looks forward to coming home and contributing in her own way towards rebuilding. But Banda Aceh is very different from the Indonesia that was home to the eleven year old Angela. With Ground Zero swarming with aid workers and entrepreneurs trying to reconstruct from scratch, Angela finds herself in the middle of a psychedelic whirlpool. Where on one side she sees and lives the “Frangipani Life” along with her expat friends, the other side portrays the loss, deprivation and helplessness of the survivors. Survivors- not only of the horrific tsunami, but also of the armed conflict that had ravaged the island for almost 30 years and shades of which can be seen in the strict sharia laws and regulated lives of the locals . Though the trials and frustrations at work and the outside world bring forth disillusionment for Angela, it is in the midst of this chaos and disarrangement that she finds love.
This book is an interesting perspective on the life of an aid worker. The distinct culture of Banda Aceh and the contrasting metropolitan life of Jakarta and Bali add to the charm of the book. The reference to the frangipani flower in the narrative is very interesting and throws light on how this simple five petaled flower is perceived in varied tropical cultures.
According to Alexandra Harris, “The book was inspired by my time in Aceh. I went to Aceh in 2006 to work for the UN, and Angela’s experiences are based on my own and others’ stories and experiences in post-tsunami Aceh. I started working on the book in 2009 while I was living in Indonesia, then continued in fits and starts, interrupted by having two babies. Over the last two years Ameena Hussein helped me complete and edit the novel”.
For Alexandra, “Frangipani Life”, signifies an idealised version of expat life, which can never be fully realised.
Published in Daily Mirror Sri Lanka- Life Section Page C6, 3rd June,2015
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