These 20 books about Sri Lanka will give you the full spectrum of Sri Lankan culture, history, and the human condition. Our list includes compelling stories from the Sri Lankan civil war, post-colonial class structures, natural disasters, forbidden love, family tragedies and an unforgettable casts of characters.
Novels Set in Sri Lanka
Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera
This book explores the fates of two families, one Tamil and the other Sinhala, as they straddle opposite sides of Sri Lanka’s long civil war.
The story is narrated by two daughters. Yasodhara’s family leave the homeland but miss their reminders of home. Saraswathi’s family stays, forced to face the brutalities of war.
Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
Anil was born in Sri Lanka but was educated in England and the US. She returns to Sri Lanka as a forensic anthropologist to investigate an organized campaign of murder during the bloody civil war.
There is so much that is unsaid in this book as the members of various warring group just try to survive by keep their heads down. The book goes back and forth in time, revealing one uncomfortable truth after another.
Mosquito, Roma Tearne
While this book is set during Sri Lanka’s civil war, it is a love story at heart. The main character, Theo Samarajeeva is set adrift by the recent death of his wife, so he leaves London and returns to Sri Lanka. He develops a friendship with a neighborhood girl who has artistic talent, and their relationship blossoms, even amidst the war.
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, Shehan Karunatilaka
Seven Moons won the Booker Prize in 2022, so you know you are in for a quality read. Who killed Maali and what did they want from him? Turns out they wanted a box of damning photographs taking during Maali’s many journalism assignments during the war.
But Karunatilaka takes an interesting approach as much of the book features the point of view of the recently deceased. Maali didn’t even realize he was dead at first and now he only has seven days to “complete the formalities” in the afterlife and try to figure out how to prevent the photos from falling into the wrong hands.
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, Shyam Selvadurai
During the 1980 monsoon season, fourteen-year-old Amrith’s life is upended with the arrival of his Canadian cousin. Amrith develops feelings for his cousin (who is of the same gender) and the book explores his emotional journey amidst a hot and humid summer in Colombo.
The book has a whiff of Othello with some disastrous jealousy.
Brotherless Night, V. V. Ganeshananthan
The devastating civil war upends 16 year-old Sashi’s dream to become a doctor begins to fade. One of her brother’s dies and the others take up a rebel cause, leaving Sashi with a conflicted conscience and some difficult choices to make.
As a medic, she bears witness to the many atrocities committed during the war and she begins to document and expose the damage done to the local civilian populations.
Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai
This book about Sri Lanka features a boy coming to the slow realization that he is gay. It’s set in the 1980’s and the boy grows up happily in a huge household, but things get difficult as his self-awareness dawns.
The book is deeply emotional and it has a poignant narrative.
“Yet those Sundays, when I was seven, marked the beginning of my exile from the world I loved. Like a ship that leaves a port for the vast expanse of sea, those much looked forward to days took me away from the safe harbour of childhood towards the precarious waters of adult life.”
A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam
When Krishan gets a call that his grandmother has died under unexpected circumstances, he heads north into the war-torn Northern Province for the funeral.
The lyrical prose examines the legacy of Sri Lanka’s long civil war.
Arudpragasam also wrote The Story of a Brief Marriage, which is also set in Sri Lanka. This book was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2021. If you like reading from the prize lists, check out our archive of reads for the Booker, Pulitzer and National Book Awards.
On Sal Mal Lane, Ru Freeman
When the Herath family moves into Sal Mal Lane, things a pretty quiet. The bulk of the book covers the Herath family and how they bring life to the lane. There is the innocence of childhood, but also class and caste differences, and complicated adult dynamics. All of this becomes that much more complicated as the social unrest leading up the civil war starts to heat up.
The Flower Boy, Karen Roberts
Set in the colonialist period of the ’30s, this book follows the tender friendship of two children who live together but are separated by economic status and class divisions.
There’s a lot of character development as the book focuses on strangers in a strange land, family, and difficult choices. Lots of atmosphere and all the feels.
The Sapphire Widow, Dinah Jefferies
It’s 1935 in Ceylon. Luisa is the daughter of a successful British gem trader and her husband is a charming thrill-seeking businessman. They’ve been trying to have children for years, but have encountered many miscarriages. The stress of it drives them apart as Elliot spends more time at their cinnamon plantation.
After Elliot’s sudden death, Luisa goes to the plantation in an effort to find out what happened. What she finds out shocks her to her core.
River of Ink, Paul M.M. Cooper
Many of these Sri Lankan books are set either during the colonial period or the civil war. But this one goes back to the 13th century.
Asanka (the poet to the king), lives a cushy and courtly life. When the king is overthrown, the new king gives Asanka the task of translating a holy Sanskrit poem. The delicate nature of the translation puts Asanka in political peril.
The Village in the Jungle, Leonard Woolf
In 1904, Woolf was in the civil service in what was then called Ceylon. This Sri Lankan novel is the first in English literature to be written from an indigenous point of view and it explores how the colonial material world oppressed and indebted the Sri Lankans.
The Tea Planter’s Wife, Dinah Jefferies
This is set in 1920’s Sri Lanka (when it was still called Ceylon). Gwen is a young Englishwoman who joins her new husband on a tea plantation. He’s a widower and Gwen quickly finds that he’s still haunted by the death of his first wife. She’s keeping secrets from him. He’s keeping secrets from her. And it all comes to a devastating head.
Absorbing. Haunting. Atmospheric.
Beautiful Place, Amanthi Harris
In this off-the-radar pick we meet Padma. She’s from a small coastal village. Her father had hoped to foist her onto the wealthy owner of a local villa. But instead, the man adopts Padma and encourages her to go to school in Colombo.
The schooling didn’t work out, but she returns and starts a successful guesthouse business.
The book is about that…but it’s also about dirty politics and tribal feuds and the darker side of tourism and class divisions.
You’re Invited, Amanda Jayatissa
Amaya’s old friend invites her to an over-the-top wedding in Sri Lanka. But Amaya is disturbed to learn that the groom is her ex, and she feels that she must do whatever it takes to stop the wedding.
Then, when the bride goes missing, everyone starts looking at Amaya. This is a tight thriller with an obsessive, unreliable narrator, and a whole lotta whodunnit.
Jayatissa also wrote My Sweet Girl, which is set primarily in San Francisco but has scenes in Sri Lanka.
If you like this sort of murdery wedding setting, then we’ve also got a discussion guide for The Guest List, which is set on a storm-swept Irish island.
Non-Fiction Books About Sri Lanka
A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks, Rory Spowers
Rory Spowers, a BBC journalist and environmentalist abandons his life in London for an ecologically sustainable life in Sri Lanka. He and his family set out to create a model, organic tea farm and this memoir chronicles his (mis)adventures.
Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje
In the late 70’s Ondaatje returned to his native Sri Lanka to dig into his family’s history. Along the way, he examines the country’s great cultural changes through the lens of his family’s- who are a bunch crazy characters.
Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala
In 2004, Deraniyagala’s entire family was tragically swept away in a tsunami. Deraniyagala experiences a crushing loss and has to figure out how to carry on, while still keeping a place in her heart for them.
Elephant Complex, John Gimlette
Follow Gimlette on his remarkable encounters with Sri Lanka’s people, modern culture and wildlife. In this travelogue, He goes way off the grid and explores all four corners of Sri Lanka, sharing his experiences with descriptive detail and a sharp eye for detail.
Explore More Armchair Travel
If you like works in translation and reading around the world, check out our books lists for books set in Australia, Jordan, Spain, Paris, Scotland, Colombia, Iceland, and Cuba. And we have a whole series for the Emerald Isle: Irish mysteries and thrillers, fiction set in the Republic of Ireland, and fiction set in Northern Ireland.
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