River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper

I should mention in a disclaimer that I actually attended university with Paul Cooper – so I was overjoyed (and sickened with envy) when he told us that he had been offered a book deal with Bloomsbury. That book was River of Ink, which was published in January, and though I may sound biased, is a gripping and masterly debut.

River of Ink

Speaking at the launch of the book in Asia House, Paul mentioned that he was partially inspired by the court poet Thomas Wyatt, who secretly alluded to his love of Anne Boleyn in his poetry for Henry VIII. It didn’t end well for him – though it could have ended worse… The story takes place in 13th century Sri Lanka, narrated by Asanka, the court poet to King Parakrama. Asanka lives a comfortable life, writing romantic verses for lords and secretly teaching the beautiful palace housemaid Sarasi to write. But then Kalinga Magha, a fierce prince arrives on Lanka’s shores, usurping the throne and destroying everything Asanka knows. He doesn’t expect to live another day – but to his surprise, Magha reveals that he too is a lover of poetry.

Asanka is tasked with the translation of an epic Sanskrit poem – the Shishupala Vadha, which Magha believes will have a civilising effect on his new people. Having seen his previous king tortured and beheaded before his eyes, Asanka, who is not a brave man, reluctantly agrees. But almost accidentally, he begins to weave in subversive lines about the king, comparing him to the poem’s villain Shishupal. And whilst Kalinga doesn’t notice, applauding his work, the people do – especially Sarasi – and to his horror, he is lauded as a hero. Now caught between his blinding terror of the king, and Sarasi whose admiration he craves, Asanka is forced to continue the endeavour he never wanted, which almost drives him insane.

Not an especially admirable man, certainly not a heroic man, Asanka spends much of the book pining over Sarasi and worrying about his potential execution. He is nonetheless sympathetic – a man who only knows poetry and yet doesn’t believe in the power of the pen, seeing it only as something beautiful to be admired. Magha is utterly convincing as a tyrant who nonetheless wants to be loved by his people and by his women – who possibly believes Asanka to be his friend, conveniently forgetting that he could have him killed in an instant. The narrative is addressed throughout to Sarasi, who Asanka occasionally seems to have reduced in his mind as an embodiment of the simplest and purest femininity. But she is no damsel in need of rescue.

The writing is intensely lyrical and poetic – fittingly! – from metaphors such as ‘I watched all the thousands of beautiful voices turn to ash’ to witty turns of phrase like ‘he looked back at me the way a tiger might look at a prawn.’ Paul spent two years teaching in Sri Lanka and his research is clear – even the making of paper and ink is explored in depth. Yet the research is worn very lightly – never overpowering the story.

A captivating historical novel about a little known period of history, which I thoroughly enjoyed – well done Paul, and look forward to seeing what you have coming up next!

River of Ink by Paul M. M. Cooper is out now, published by Bloomsbury, price £14.99 in hardback.

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