21 Books on Sri Lanka That’ll Spark Your Wanderlust

by Dec 13, 2022Books

Looking for a book or two about Sri Lanka?

Planning a trip to the country and want to know something about it before you go?

Or just want to know more about its history?

Here is a list of 21 books on Sri Lanka. I have read all of them. Some, I adored. Others I liked, and only a small number, I wasn’t as fond of. I’ll tell you which ones to pick up and which ones to skip.

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I’m ashamed to admit this:

Before I read the first page of the first book I ever read on Sri Lanka, I knew almost nothing about the country. I knew there had been a civil war and I knew a church had been blown up a year or two earlier. I’d heard something about tigers and tea plantations. But that’s about it.

I had never even really had an interest in visiting the country.

But then I was stuck at home during the pandemic, wishing I could be somewhere else when I came across a travel blog about Sri Lanka.

I was intrigued.

So, I picked up a book about Sri Lanka and then another and another.

And before I knew it, I was hooked, and I wanted to know more about the country.

I read 20 books about Sri Lanka, and I even planned out my itinerary for when I could visit once the pandemic was over.

That was 2020.

It’s now 2022, and I’m updating this post to add the Booker Prize-winning book, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, to this list, and wishing I could visit.

Despite all my planning, I haven’t made it to Sri Lanka.


Instead, I ended up going to Mexico. Fell in love with that country. Made it through Central America, and then headed back to Mexico. All in about 18 months.

Hopefully, I’ll make it to Sri Lanka after I end my journey through South America in 2023.

In the meantime, here is an updated list of the best books on Sri Lanka—I have read (as of December 2022). I’m sure there are more out there. If you know of any not on the list, let me know in the comments below.

Thank you!

And enjoy!

Non-Fiction Books on Sri Lanka

Start your reading of books on Sri Lanka here with my list of non-fiction books. By beginning here, you’ll get some background knowledge on the history of Sri Lanka especially covering the events since independence from the British. It’ll make it easier to understand the novels on Sri Lanka.

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1. The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers

By Gordon Weiss (2012)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“The stage was set for a nation that in the achivement of its own identity and independence in 1948 saw denial of the identity of others in their midst–Tamils, Muslims, Christians–as their right.”

I was a bit hesitant about reading The Cage as it got mixed reviews. However, I’m really glad I did. It helped me a lot in understanding two important aspects of the war: (1) what led to the civil war and (2) what happened during the closing days of the war from the perspective of aid workers on the ground. Did the Sri Lankan government purposely kill civilians? Did the Tamil Tigers purposely put civilians in harm’s way?

It’s not an easy book to get through as the writing is quite dry. Unlike This Divided Nation and Seasons of Trouble that were more anecdotal and that looked at the war from the point of view of the average person, The Cage is a straightforward, factual account looking at the war from those in charge: the government, the Tamil Tigers, the United Nations, and the Red Cross.

There were two highlights for me: One was the first third of the book where Weiss was laying out the root causes of the war. It was fascinating to learn how Buddhism in Sri Lanka developed into an extremist and racist religion.

The other highlight was reading the account of the war from the perspective of the United Nations commander who was delivering relief supplies to the refugees as bombs were raining down on him and his staff. It had me on the edge of my seat. 

A very good book on Sri Lanka!

2. This Divided Island: Life, Death, and the Sri Lankan Civil War

By Samanth Subramian (2015)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must seem easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”

If you’re looking to read just one non-fiction book on Sri Lanka, make it This Divided Island—part travelogue and part oral history on life after the civil war. Easy-to-read and hard-to-put-down. One of my top 2 favorite books on Sri Lanka!

Indian journalist, Samanth Subramanian moves to Sri Lankan in 2011 and travels around the country talking to a cross-section of Sri Lankan society to get their take on the war and the peace. He meets with the wife of a journalist who disappeared (probably killed by the government), wives, fathers, mothers of Tamils who also had disappeared, a Sinhalese academic researching “Urban Buddhism”, right-wing Buddhist monks, and many more. What was so impressive is how Subramanian gets these people to trust him and open up to him to tell him their stories.

This Divided Island is a brilliant work of investigative journalism. It’s insightful, riveting, and heartbreaking.

The writing is superb—empathetic and engaging, not dry like a lot of non-fiction books.

3. Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

By John Gimlette (2016)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“Until Sri Lanka, the world had never seen the suicide bomb, but by the early nineties they were moving quietly through the Colombo crowds.”

Elephant Complex was unlucky for me in that it was the first book about Sri Lanka that I read. Not knowing much about the country beyond a Wikipedia entry, I had a hard time understanding what the author was talking about. Gimlette tends to just jump into events without providing any background information. At first, I found it frustrating, and I struggled to keep my focus on the page.

The book is part travelogue and part history. I did enjoy how he organized the book. It’s part travelogue and part history. His travel route follows the history of Sri Lanka. He begins by visiting the ancient cities of Sri Lanka (Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, and Sigiriya) and ends in the northeast where the civil war ended in 2009 before heading back to Colombo. As a history lover, I like how he did that.

However, I appreciate the book for what I learned about Sri Lanka and for how much it inspired me to visit and read more about the country. There’s a lot here on elephants (never knew how dangerous they could be), the ancient cities of Sri Lanka, and the events leading up to and during the civil war.

One big negative for me was that Gimlette didn’t make enough connections with Sri Lankans like Subramian, Mohan, and even Briggs did in their books. He should have traveled by public transportation, learned some Tamil, and spent more time in the country.

This travelogue is a great book if you love books on travel and history. I recommend it but perhaps not read it as your introduction to Sri Lanka.


4. Running in the Family 

By Michael Ondaatje (2011)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“But nothing is said of the closeness between two people: how they grew in the shade of each other’s presence. No one speaks of that exchange of gift and character — the way a person took on and recognized in himself the smile of a lover. Individuals are seen only in the context of these swirling social tides.”

Written by Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family is a collection of musings, poems, stories about his eccentric family, and sprinkles of culture and history on Sri Lanka. There are some chapters that are just streams of consciousness. The chapters have no connection with each other. Some are dull, while others were fascinating.

I like the stories of Ondaatje’s family—the alcoholic father and the family home that is infested with cobras (I hate snakes). I think the family is part Dutch and part Sinhalese, but it wasn’t clear how the family tree came about. It’s a slightly dysfunctional family with lots of madness and alcoholism, but it’s also a large one with a long, grand history. I sort of envy the latter.

I also like the parts about the Insurgency of 1971—how the government imprisoned the insurgents in a local high school. Afterward, when the student returned, they “found hundreds of poems written on walls, ceilings, and in hidden corners of the campus.”

I think if you’re a big Michael Ondaatje fan, then you might enjoy Running in the Family. I didn’t like enough of it to finish.

5. The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

By Romini Mohan (2015)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“Even in pre-independence Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was once known, school and college enrolment among Tamils exceeded that of other ethnicities in the country. Gradually, differences in educational attainment came to form the identities of the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, which grew into separate ethnic blocs, each of which considered itself wronged by the other.”

Before I give you a summary and review of Seasons of Trouble, let’s talk about the cover of Seasons of Trouble. This has got to be the butt-ugliest book cover I’ve ever seen. I was so turned off by the cover that I almost didn’t read it.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you what I think of what’s inside the book:

Seasons of Trouble – one of my top 2 favorite books on Sri Lanka. Wow! I mean, really. Wow! Could not put it down. It reads more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. The investigative journalism is the best I’ve seen. Heartbreaking, insightful, riveting. Need I say more?

Rohini Mohan travels around the world including a year living in Sri Lanka interviewing hundreds of regular Tamil Sri Lankans about what happened during and after the war. The book, though, just covers the stories of 3 people.

Mugil: At the age of 14, Mugil becomes a Tamil Tiger. She kills her first human being at the age of 14. Shoots him point-blank right in the forehead as he pleads for his life. She then goes on to shoot the next soldier and the next.

Sarva: Sarva is picked up on the street by the anti-terrorism unit and brought to a secret place where he is tortured in unspeakable ways (wait until you get to the ending when he tells you what was really done to him—I had tears running down my face!) getting him to confess that he was a Tamil Tiger.

Indra: Indra is Sarva’s mother. There is some iron will in this woman that drives her for over five years to find, save, and protect her son. She works relentlessly with NGOs, corrupt government officers, the police, and human traffickers while the people around her have already given up.

Like I said, Seasons of Trouble is a remarkable and unforgettable book. It’s a book that will keep you reading late into the night. It’s also one of the best books to help you understand what it was like for Tamil civilians to be caught in the middle between the Tamil Tigers and the army during the last days of the civil war, how the Sri Lankan government harasses and tortures Tamils, and how the Tamil Tigers recruit child soldiers.

6. The Teardrop Island: Following Victorian Footsteps Across Sri Lanka

By Cherry Briggs (2013)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

‘We were once called “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, but what do they say about us now?’ He looked at the map and began to trace the route Tennent had taken across the island. ‘It would be interesting to follow his route now and see how much has changed,’ he said thoughtfully, moving his finger along the coastline and deep into the jungle interior. ‘We think we have changed so much, but I expect in many ways we have not changed at all.’

Don’t you love it when a book exceeds expectations? Based on the not-so-positive reviews on Goodreads, I wasn’t even going to read The Teardrop Island. However, it turned out to be one of my favorite books on Sri Lanka.

It’s a couple of years after the end of the civil war. Cherry Briggs, a British teacher teaching in Sri Lanka, comes across a 1000-page travel book on Sri Lanka by Irishman, Sir James Emerson Tennent, who was the colonial secretary in the country in the mid-1800s. Not having learned much about Sri Lanka in her year of living there, Briggs decides to retrace Tennent’s travels around Sri Lanka and then write a book about it as well. She goes to Colombo, Galle, the tea plantations, the beaches along the west coast, Batticaloa and Trincamola, Jaffna, the ancient cities, and Mannar.

I think I liked Teardrop Island so much because I could relate to the writer—a teacher and a female traveler going solo around Sri Lanka on broken-down buses, talking to locals, and visiting the touristy and not-so-touristy sights. It gave me the courage and motivation to do the same.

It was also refreshing reading a book that wasn’t ONLY about the war. She talks also about some fascinating Sri Lankan customs and traditions that I didn’t know about before.

7. Wave

By Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“I will kill myself soon. But until then how do l tame my pain?”

Do you remember the Christmas Tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2006? I was living in China at the time and I was glued to my computer screen reading as much as I could about what was happening. So, I was eager to read Wave, a story about the Christmas Tsunami from someone who lived through it. The author, Somali Deraniyagala, was on holiday on the coast of Sri Lanka with her husband, two children, and parents. She survived. They didn’t. Deraniyagala describes her experience surviving the tsunami and the grief that overpowered her. The writing is raw, honest, and emotional. Deraniyagala pours her heart out on these pages. I have to give her credit for being so open and vulnerable. She doesn’t come off on these pages as the most heroic person. Unfortunately, I also grew impatient with the book. I think it’s because I wanted a different book than the one Deraniyagala wrote. Sure, I wanted to read about what she went through. But I wish she had balanced it out by moving away from herself and exploring how the tsunami affected other people—what they went through. Tell me more about the Sri Lankan fisherman who lost his whole family or the hotel owner who lost his hotel or the restaurant worker who survived but lost his job.

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Fiction Books on Sri Lanka

Here are 12 fiction books on Sri Lanka. There are some true gems here. The best thing here is that all of them were written originally in English. 

8. Anil’s Ghost

By Michael Ondaatje (2001)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“American movies, English books – remember how they all end?” Gamini asked that night. “The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.”

While in the midst of reading it, I have to say Anil’s Ghost wasn’t my favorite book I read on Sri Lanka. Ondaatje has a disjointed style of writing that I grew impatient and frustrated with at times. But there’s something about this book that I can’t get out of my mind. It’s been over a month since I last read it and I still can’t stop thinking about the characters and story. The characters and story are so rich and complex and the world that Odaantje is so dark and haunting. There is always a sense of danger in the air.

I’d like to read another novel by Odaantje to see if I come away with the same impression.

Anil, a forensic scientist working for a human rights organization, is sent to the country where she grew up to investigate stories of kidnapping, torture and death during the communist uprisings in the South and the Tamil war in the North. The government pairs her with Sarath, an archaeologist. He’s distant and secretive. Can she trust him? Together they uncover a skeleton not more than five years old in a cave that only government officials have access to. Is this one of the many people who had been kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the government or by communist separatists or by terrorists in Sri Lanka’s long civil war? Who does this skeleton belong to? A farmer, a teacher, a student, a doctor?

I wish someone would turn this book into a movie like X did for The Year of Living Dangerously (you can read my review on the book here).

I’m wavering between giving this book 4 or 5 stars. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

9. Cinnamon Gardens

By Shyam Selvadurai (2000)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“Annalukshmi folded her arms to her chest and prayed, not to God but to her better self, for the strength to wait, to hold fast to her ideals, even when there was nothing ot pin her dreams on.”

Cinnamon Gardens is a fun and fascinating book to read centering around two main characters from the same wealthy extended family: Annalukshmi and Balendran.  Both go against typical norms of early twentieth-century Sri Lankan society. Annalukshmi is a headstrong, independent, and forward-thinking young woman. She doesn’t want to marry and give up her career. But Anna comes up against her family’s wishes for her to marry and the glass ceiling facing Sri Lankans at that time in the colony. Balendran is secretly gay. Twenty years ago he was in love with a British man. Balendran sacrificed his happiness for his family returned home and got married. However, now the man he loves is coming to Sri Lanka. Two things I loved about this book: (1) it’s refreshingly NOT about the conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese. (2) it talks about a subject that I find fascinating: the caste system in Sri Lanka. The big debate in the book is whether to allow lower castes suffrage and whether people of different castes should marry. Cinnamon Gardens refers to the area of Colombo where the wealthy live. This was one of my favorite books on Sri Lanka! I highly recommend reading it.

10. Funny Boy

By Shyam Selvadurai (2015)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“Right and wrong, fair and unfair had nothing to do with how things really were. I thought of Shehan and myself. What had happened between us in the garage was not wrong. For how could loving Shehan be bad? Yet if my parents or anybody else discovered this love, I would be in terrible trouble. I thought of how unfair this was and I was reminded of things I had seen happen to other people, like Jegan, or even Radha Aunty, who, in their own way had experienced injustice. How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or unjust?”

Arjie is different. He’s not like his cousins, his brother or sister, or his classmates. His father sees it. So does his brother. His family worries that Arjie is going to turn out “funny.” Arjie perhaps can feel it. But he can really pinpoint what it is. Because this is who he is. Funny Boy is a coming-of-age story of Arjie, a member of a well-off Tamil family living in Colombo during the 1970s and early 1980s. Arjie is gay. And this is his story of what it was like as a young boy to never fit in and to be told that the things you liked were wrong. Then as a teenager to discover who he is. This is a very moving story. Some of the chapters are so authentic sounding that they feel autobiographical. You can really feel the pain that Arjie is feeling when his family tries to mold him into something he’s not. There are so many other things I love about Funny Boy. I love the family dynamics—the father who refuses to listen to his family about how much trouble the Tamils are in and the aunt who tries to follow her own path only to be sucked into the prejudices of everyone else. I once read that people who read novels are more empathetic than people who don’t. I think this is the perfect example of that belief. One cannot help empathizing with Arjie and one cannot come away from this book and not believe that there is nothing wrong with being gay.

11. Island of a Thousand Mirrors

By Nayomi Munaweera (2014)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“We have learned not to care about the state of that other place even as it burns or drowns.”

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is one of my favorite kinds of books to read: a novel on the history of a country told through the eyes of three generations of one family.

Yasodhara Rajasinghe is a Sinhalese Buddhist who comes from a well-educated family from southern Sri Lanka. She spends her early years in Colombo living an idyllic life with her grandmother, parents, and younger sister. A Tamil family lives in an apartment above her family. The son of the Tamil family and Yasodhara form a close friendship. Then the events of Black July happen, and her family decides to leave Sri Lanka to start over in the United States. She gradually assimilates into American society. Then her sister and her return to Sri Lanka.

Saraswathie is a Tamil Hindu living in the middle of a war zone in northern Sri Lanka. She’s 13 or 14 years old and her life cannot be more different than Yasodhara’s. It’s a life of poverty, violence, and fear. But Yasodhara has dreams—one is to be a teacher. Unfortunately, one day she is arrested by the Sri Lanka security forces.

Eventually, the lives of these two women converge.

I really enjoyed Island of a Thousand Mirrors. It’s not a perfect book. The writer should have given equal coverage to both Yasodhara and Saraswathie’s stories. We hear about Yasodhara’s family’s history but not Saraswathie’s. So it feels rather unbalanced.

That being said, the story is engaging. The plot keeps you turning the page. A good pace. Fully-developed and interesting characters. Very accessible to western readers.

12. Mosquito

By Roma Tearne (2007)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“You do not see how we have changed,” he said eventually. “We are so confused by this war. Sometimes I hear people arguing that it is the fault of the British. That even though they have gone, we still have an inferior feeling in us. Who can tell?” He shrugged, helplessly. “Our needs are so many, Sir, and our attitudes have because of them”

Mosquito is a love story taking place during the civil war. I generally enjoy reading love stories, but this one involving a 17-year-old girl and a 47-year-old man creeped me out.

Theo is a famous writer who left Sri Lanka many years ago only to return to the country after his wife died. He buys a villa on the beach north of Colombo.

He’s not afraid to express his opinion on the unfair treatment of Tamils and has even written a book on it. His servant, Sugi, continually warns him to be careful. Theo doesn’t listen.

On top of that, Theo falls in love with a Nulani, a 17-year-old girl who comes from a family with their own bit a controversy. Nulani’s father also held views about Tamils that were unpopular with the far-right and ended up murdered for his views.

Eventually, Theo pays for his indiscretion and naivety.

There’s one more thing that creeped me out. There’s another character named Vikram who rapes a local girl repeatedly, and then the writer actually has the girl falling in love with him.

13. Noontide Toll

By Romesh Gunesekera (2010)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“So now, I find it hard to believe anything and end up knowing nothing. Never mind the media. I don’t even know whether we are living in a capitalist state or a socialist one., a non-aligned one or a crooked one. And when I try to compensate against my prejudices, I end up believing everything and nothing, as if we are living in a country without consequences.”

Noontide Toll—now here is a book that is so beautifully written that you want to savor every single sentence. Written by Romesh Gunesekera, it is one of my top 3 books on Sri Lanka. A deep and insightful book, it asks philosophical questions about how a nation moves on when it has experienced so much terror, hatred, division, violence, prejudice, betrayal, and lies.

The civil war has ended a few years prior, and peace has finally come to Sri Lanka. Vasantha, a single guy in his fifties, retires early, buys an old van, and starts a business of driving foreign and local tourists, aid workers, generals, and exiles up and down the coast of Sri Lanka. Each chapter is a stand-alone story. In one chapter, he takes some Dutch tourists to the fort in Jaffna and in another some Sri Lankans who had escaped to Canada to the Jaffna library. My favorite is when he drives some Chinese businesspeople to the site of the last battle of the civil war.

As he drives to these places all over a country that has just gotten out of a 26-year civil war, he meets people whose lives have been forever changed by the war. He perfectly captures that feeling of a country that on the surface is at peace but underneath there is something definitely wrong with that peace.

It’s a very philosophical book about how a nation deals with its past. Do its citizens forget and move on? Can they ever forgive? Do they just think about the future like the Chinese and Vietnamese have done—progress and prosperity? Do they come clean and tell the truth like the Germans have done or do they keep it out of school textbooks like the Japanese? What happens when no one knows the truth? What happens when the government covers up lies about what really happened at the end of the war?

14. On Sal Mal Lane

By Ru Freeman (2013)

My Rating: 5 out of 5

“God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was Karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in this world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and surely these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.”

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman is a beautiful book whose tone, theme, and plot structure remind me of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The story takes place from 1979 to 1983 and follows the lives of a group of families (especially the children) who live on Sal Mal Lane in Colombo. Some of the families are Tamil, some Sinhalese, and some Burgher. Some are Catholic and some are Muslim. Some are free of prejudice, while others are filled with it. Some have loving families, while others are homes of abuse and violence.

At first, the children’s lives are quite idyllic. They do everything that children do. They play cricket, sing English songs, read English books, play the piano and guitar, hold talent shows, etc. There are a couple of outcasts, who you’re told repeatedly throughout the story that they’re going to bring trouble to the neighborhood.

Eventually, the tensions and prejudices between the Sinhalese and Tamils creep into the lives of the characters. The story comes to a climax in July 1983 when the Sinhalese murder 3,000 Tamils and burn down their homes and businesses. It’s interesting to see how the different families in on Sal Mal Lane react.

This is the perfect book for someone who likes stories that like to really get to know their characters. Like in To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s slow at first, but it picks up gradually as the tensions increase.

On Sal Mal Lane also the perfect book for helping you see the complexity and diversity of Sri Lankan society—not everyone has prejudices against other ethnic or religious groups.

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15. Reef

By Romesh Gunesekera (2014)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

‘“The urge to build, to transform nature, to make something out of nothing is universal. But to conserve, to protect, to care for the past is something we have to learn, “ he would say.’

The year is 1962. Eleven-year-old Triton accidentally burns down a building at school and is sent to work as a servant in the home of Mr. Salgado. At first, he works under the petty and bitter Joseph. But eventually, he rises to become the head chef and lone servant of Mr. Salgado. His whole life is geared toward serving Mr. Salgado—to cook and take care of Mr. Salgado.

The story reminds me of Remains of the Day by my favorite writer Kazuo Ishiguro. In both books, you have the loyal servant living in an insular world where everyone is trying to hold onto the old values and social norms of an era that is coming to an end. Outside of the walls of the house, things are changing and not always in a good way. In Remains of the Day, it was England on the verge of World War II and in Reef, it’s the beginning of the violence and conflict that will engulf Sri Lanka for the next thirty years.

The difference between the two books, though, is that Mr. Salgado comes off as a really good person. He’s a marine biologist. That’s where the title comes from. The Reef refers to the reef that Mr. Salgado studies and represents the desire to protect and conserve.

You might like Reef if you like books that move at a slow pace and a book that is more contemplative and descriptive than action-packed. I myself don’t need a lot of action, but I need some tension to motivate me to read on. I felt this book was missing some of that.  I also wanted to see Triton grow more as a character, overcome more obstacles, and find himself faced with some moral dilemmas. Yes, he became a better chef, but I didn’t see him becoming more independent. Without those things, I didn’t find the ending as plausible as it could have been.

16. The Road From Elephant Pass

By Nihal De Silva (2011)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“How could anyone say, ‘My people were here a thousand years ago, so this land belongs us [sic]’? Someone else would have there earlier anyway. Even if one race or tribe lived there in ancient times, what of it? They moved and someone else lived there later. Those who made these claims often produce ‘evidence’, based on selective research, to support their position.”

The Road from Elephant Pass is the most action-packed and most fun book to read on this list of books on Sri Lanka.

The year is 2000. At this time, the Sri Lankan military occupies the Jaffna peninsula and the Tamil Tigers the heavily-forested area south of Jaffna called the Wanni. Elephant Pass is the gateway to the peninsula. It is held precariously by the military.

Wasantha, a captain in the Sri Lanka military, is charged with escorting Kamala Velaithan, a member of the Tamil Tigers, to Colombo to give sensitive intelligence information that could end the war. What has driven her to betray the Tamils?

They are supposed to make their way from Elephant Pass to the airport in Jaffna to fly to Colombo. Unfortunately, Kamala arrives late and the jeep that is supposed to take them to Jaffna has a flat tire, so they start off late in the day and end up ambushed in an attack on the pass.

Wasantha and Kamala need to make their way by foot from Elephant Pass to Colombo. Their route takes them through the largest national park of Walliptu that has been closed to tourists because of the civil war. The park is filled with dangerous animals, poachers, and deserters from the Sri Lankan military.

It’s a fun, suspenseful adventure between two people from opposing sides of the civil war.

I loved the book for its introduction to the wildlife of Sri Lanka—the elephants, deer, birds, reptiles. Both Wasantha and Kamala are avid bird-watchers.

I also loved hearing the arguments about the conflict from both sides. Most of the books on this list are by Tamil writers, so it was refreshing hearing the Sinhalese side. But I’m not sure what de Silva’s background is.

There are tons of typos in the book!

I highly recommend The Road from Elephant Pass.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear from you. What did you think of the relationship between Wasantha and Kamala? Did you find it realistic?

17. The Tea Planter’s Wife

By Dinah Jefferies (2016)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“She felt poised at the point when life shakes itself up, and you have no idea where you’ll be standing when it settles in a new pattern, or whether you will be standing at all. What she did know was now that Laurence was not around, the battles lines had been drawn.”

Have you seen the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Rebecca, or read the Daphne du Maurier book the movie was based on?

The beginning of The Tea Planter’s Wife starts with that same eerie vibe and those odd and mysterious characters that are in the movie and book.

Gwen is the new innocent, naïve, and young wife of a wealthy and older British tea plantation owner in 1920s Sri Lanka. She arrives at her new home, a tea plantation in the hills of Sri Lanka, only to discover her new home isn’t as idyllic as she was hoping for.

Her new husband is cold and distant.

There’s a previous wife no one will talk about.

There’s a hidden grave of a young child and a secret nursery that hadn’t been touched in years.

There’s a jealous, bitter, and manipulative sister-in-law, who also happens to be a terrible dresser.

There are lots of rules about where Gwen can go and can’t go.

Unfortunately, The Tea Planter’s Wife turns away from a Hitchcockian masterpiece to become a typical romantic soap opera.

It’s a pretty decent book if you’re into romances. The story moves along at a really good pace. There’s plenty of suspense and heartbreak. The setting is deliciously fun to read about. It makes you want to book a ticket to Sri Lanka as soon as you can.

If you’re looking for an escape to an exotic location with endless fields of tea (truly a beautiful sight) and historic homes of wealthy colonial Brits, then this is a good book to pick up.

More Books to Read to Take You Around the World

18. Trouble in Nuala (The Inspector de Silva Mysteries Book 1)

By Harriet Steel (2016)

My Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

“She had been unhappy with her husband, but that wasn’t automatically a motive for murder. If it were, half the husbands in the world would be in danger sometimes.”

I love mysteries set in exotic locations, so I was excited to read a mystery novel set in Sri Lanka, especially in its tea growing region.

Trouble in Nuala is the first in a series of books set in the 1930s starring Detective Di Silva, a middle-aged Sri Lankan who’s been transferred from Colombo to the charming and idyllic village of Nuala,  a city located among the British tea plantations of the hill country. Di Silva is married to a British woman.

A Sri Lankan lawyer from Colombo comes to Nuala accusing one of the British plantation owners of whipping one of his workers. The head of the local government asks Di Silva to investigate. The owner, an unlikeable chap, denies he ever did something like that and accuses the worker of faking his injuries. Di Silva sort of shrugs all this off and goes on with his life until the British plantation owner is found murdered.

Who did it? The Sri Lankan lawyer? The plantation worker? The long-suffering plantation owner’s wife? The Chinese business partner? Lankan lawyer? The plantation worker who suffered a beating by the plantation owner? Was it the plantation owner’s wife? Or the Chinese businessman?

I liked her description of the setting. But Trouble in Nuala was a rather uninspiring mystery. A simple plot and disappointing ending. There were so many ways she could have gone with this book that would have made the story more original. Instead, she just resorts to stereotypes of certain ethnic groups.

19. The Village in the Jungle

By Leonard Woolf (1913)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

“For the rule of the jungle is first fear, and then hunger and thirst. There is fear everywhere: in the silence and in the shrill calls and the wild cries, in the stir of the leaves and the grating of branches, in the gloom, in the startled, slinking, peering beasts. And behind the fear is always the hunger and the thirst, and behind the hunger and the thirst fear again.”

The Village in the Jungle wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought it was going to be a scathing critique of the colonial empire like Burmese Days by George Orwell or A Passage to India by E.M. Forster.  Instead, it was about the corruption, cruelty, jealousy, and superstitions facing one Sinhalese family that lives in a village in the jungle.

The head of the family is the father, Silindu. A lazy farmer but an avid and skilled hunter. He knows the jungle like the back of his hand. A bit of an loner, he doesn’t fit in well with the others in the village.

Silindu’s wife gives birth to twin baby girls and because they are female and not male, he’s so angry with her that he beats her. She dies. But as the girls grow up and take an interest in the jungle, he begins to adore them. The girls eventually grow up and now Silindu has to deal with the attention they attract from the men in the village.

During all of this, Silindu is harassed by the head of the village, the village shaman, a debt collector, etc.  It’s as if Silindu, the hunter, becomes Silindu, the hunted. Finally, he gets to a point when he can’t take it anymore. That is until one day he has had enough.

It’s interesting that this story is not really about the British or colonialism at all. And it made it kind of refreshing. A perfect book to read while traveling by train in Sri Lanka.

20. What Lies Between Us

By Nayomi Munaweera (2016)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

“But here’s the secret: in America there are no good mothers. They simply don’t exist. Always, there are a thousand ways to fail at this singularly important job. There are failures of the body and failures of the heart. The woman who is unable to breastfeed is a failure. The woman who screams for the epidural is a failure. The woman who picks her child up late knows from the teacher’s cutting glance that she is a failure. The woman who shares her bed with her baby has failed. The woman who steels herself and puts on noise-canceling earphones to erase the screaming of her child in the next room has failed just as spectacularly.”

If you’re reading this review of books on Sri Lanka and the pandemic is still going on and everything still sucks, then I’d say, “perhaps hold off on reading What Lies Between Us.” It’s an incredibly well-written book, BUT it’s really, really, really, really sad. I mean heartbreakingly depressing. I generally love books that pull on my heartstrings and make me an emotional wreck, but in 2020 I’m not sure I can handle even more emotional wreckage.

The first chapter pretty much gives away the ending. The protagonist, Ganga, is in prison and she’s done something horrible that only a mother can do. The writer doesn’t tell us directly, but it isn’t hard to figure out. I just wish the writer hadn’t given the ending away like that.

After the first chapter, the book moves back in time to Ganga’s heartbreakingly painful childhood in Sri Lanka. Then tragedy strikes in her early teens and she moves to America. With the help of her cousin, she assimilates into American culture. But even as she becomes more American, she can’t get away from the secrets of her childhood. Eventually, it becomes harder to keep everything Ganga has tried to bury from coming to the surface.

What Lies Between Us is really well-written. The story is fast-paced and hard to put down. The main character is well-developed. It’s not hard to get emotionally attached to the main character.

21. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

By Shehan Karunatilaka (2022)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
“History is people with ships and weapons wiping out those who forgot to invent them. Every civilization begins with a genocide. It is the rule of the universe. The immutable law of the jungle, even this one made of concrete. You can see it in the movement of the stars, and in the dance of every atom. The rich will enslave the penniless. The strong will crush the weak.”

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is part mystery and part commentary on Sri Lankan history. My favorite kind of book!

The story takes place in 1990, Colombo. The Tamil War is going on in the North and the communist uprising in the South has just ended.

The protagonist, Maali Almeida, is a war photographer, homosexual, gambler, and slut (his words, not mine).

He’s recently died, and he now finds himself stuck in the In-Between, a space between life and reincarnation. Every one who dies has seven moons (seven nights) to get things in order before they enter the Light, where they will forget everything about their former life. The dead can wait out the seven moons in a kind of waiting room that resembles a chaotic tax office filled with a lot of angry customers. Or they can roam around their past lives as ghosts.

Like everyone else in the afterlife, Maali doesn’t want to be there. He’s got a box of photos that reveal war crimes perpetrated by powerful people that if made public will take down governments. Plus, he can’t seem to remember how he died and as he suspects, who murdered him and why. Was it for his photos? Or for another reason?

Meanwhile, down on Earth, his two best friends, Jaki and DD, are searching for him. Maali needs their help to find the photos. It’s his last chance to bring justice to the dead. And perhaps reveal who killed him.

As Maali is traversing the afterlife, he meets yakas (demons) and pretas (ghosts). He’s also being pulled in two directions: One is by a professor murdered by the Tamil Tigers who’s trying to get Maali to go toward the Light. The other is by a murdered member of the JVP who’s trying to get Maali to stay in the In-Between and join him in exacting revenge on the powerful who are responsible for the killings and disappearances going on in Sri Lanka.

Seven Moons deservedly won the 2022 Booker Prize. It is a lovely, wonderful, brilliant book. Funny. Well-written. Empathetic. If you’re not familiar with Sri Lankan history, it might be challenging to make sense of the story. However, I believe the American version was revised by the author and editor to add background to the story.

Maali is a wonderfully funny but flawed character. However, the flaws make him more human. His friend, Jaki, is my favorite character—kind, wise, observant, and loyal.

For me, the book is about choosing whether to remember or forget. We take photos to document what happened, to bring criminals to justice, and to never forget. But is it better to forget and to move on with our lives or to always remember and never get over the injustices? Is revenge the best way to find justice or does it only keep the cycle of killing going?

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Final Thoughts

That’s my list of 21 books on Sri Lanka. I hope you get a chance to read one of them on the list.

If you do, let me know what you think. Come back and drop a comment in the comment section below.

If you’ve already read one of them, let me know. I’d love to know what you think. Did you like the book?

If you can recommend another book on Sri Lanka, I’d love to hear from you too!

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20 books to spark your wanderlust Sri Lanka
20 books to spark your wanderlust Sri Lanka


  1. Wow Julie, who would have thought there were so many good reads about Sri Lanka?! I definitely need to get one of these before I am going there. Bucketlist material. Best regards, Elisa of flitterfever.com

    • Hi Elisa,
      Yes! There are so many good Sri Lankan writers. I had no idea before I went on my book journey through Hoi An what great writers Sri Lanka has.

  2. “Sarasu amidst slums of Terror\” Lucky de Chickera”s Novel deserves a recommendation as I believe that it is an excellent book well worth reading on Sri Lanka during the war days.. It was short listed for the Gratian and commended for the State Literary Award,

    • Thank you for the recommendation!Sadly, it’s not possible to buy online in the U.S.

  3. Strange Fruit by Afdhel Aziz should be added to your list

    • Thanks for the recommendation!


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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.


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