Sam’s Story
By Elmo Jayawardena
Paperback: 181 pages
Publisher: TimesEditions (January 2004)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9812327746
ISBN-13: 978-9812327741

When I started to write this review, I realised that this is the third review about book that has, as a central character, a houseboy – the first was Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the second was Reef by Romesh Gunesekera.
On this website,, a synopsis of the story reveals that Sam’s Story is a story set in the year 2001. It is the tale of Sam, ‘raised in a tiny village too remote for maps, brought to work in Colombo as a house-boy, finding momentary happiness in a life muddied by difficult days and countless painful moments. … [He is] a dim-witted, illiterate houseboy, whose lot in life was to tend the gardens and care for dogs in the home of an upper-middle class family in urban Sri Lanka. … His story begins at the River house where he finds employment as a houseboy, and ends in his village to which he returns. In between the two, Sam relates episodes from his life; people that have passed through it, events that changed his world, happy childhood hours he enjoyed, tears he has shed, and days he wished he could forget. In counterpoint to these snapshots of the past are descriptions of his life at the River house; a lifestyle far removed from his own background, with people he comes to love, others he’d love to hate, and the myriad events that dotted the otherwise peaceful days he spent there.’
Elmo Jayawardena is a Sri Lankan pilot employed with Singapore Airlines. He writes in his free time and is the founder of a charitable organisation, AFLAC (Association for Lighting a Candle).
I first met the author at the LitBlogger event organised by MPH here in Kuala Lumpur. I listened to him speak about the book and his experiences. I remember him saying that there is not a single ‘big’ word in Sam’s Story. After reading the tale, this is true. The language is very simple which lends a charm to this book. Interwoven in this tale is the pain that war brings; for example, Sam practically hates the other workers in the house – Leandro and Janet. And the reason is revealed in the telling in this one sentence: Janet was from the other side that threw bombs. When the author spoke of his houseboy, he said that Sam has no idea what the war is about. Sam is Sinhalese and a Buddhist. He jus knows to hate the ‘others’.
My favourite passage in this book is this:
‘I cannot honestly remember a single day that someone laughed in my own house. I mean, really laughed, with a lot of noise and stomachs shaking, like the people who came ot the river house did. We smiled at times. Not too often, but we did smile from time to time. Even when we smiled, they were small smiles. I think the poor can give only small smiles. Since we were poorer than the poor, our smiles were mostly smaller than small similes. Just appeared and disappeared, like a broken moon in a cloud filled sky.’
Sam’s Story won the prestigious Graetian Award in 2001 for the best literary work in English in Sri Lanka. It was also long listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2003. This is a story that is both poignant and touching. You will certainly have a smile on your face long after you’ve read it.
30 January 2009

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