In a nutshell, the publication is about a woman in the UK who gradually over the years from 1980s discovered she couldn’t have children or she wouldn’t have children; she tried various ways, they did not work. Meanwhile, she had been writing to a child in faraway Sri Lanka and built up a very strong relationship with him.
Suddenly the NGO in Sri Lanka who introduced the child, says ‘you can’t write to him anymore’. After a long gap, she goes to find him. There is a reference to the civil war in Sri Lanka but it is in the background as the story is mainly based in the Kandyan region.
This correspondent met author Coston at the Imperial Hotel to discuss her novel. Ironically, the hotel is owned by Sri Lankan Lakshman Gallage.
This is her story:
"My real name is Paula Iley, but I write under the name of Paula Coston. In the 1980s I was living and working in London. I didn’t yet have any children of my own. I was in book publishing and I saw an advertisement for charity, which allowed me to find a family in some country.
"The money went to a charitable cause in the village, where the family lived. I thought this is a good idea. Lots of my family and friends were having children at the time, but I hadn’t started a family because I didn’t have anyone. I was keen on children and I enjoyed their company. I thought it was worthwhile thing. So I picked Sri Lanka.
"From Sri Lanka I was given a connection with a boy in the Kandyan region. He belonged to a farming family. They were tenant farmers in a poor area. Not the owners of the farm. The money was going to go towards a sewage project.
"After I started writing, I received letters and photographs back. They also sent me drawings. Actually, it was his mother who wrote to me. He was called Dhanushka Nilan Sameera Wedaralalage.
"When they first started to writing to me he was five years old. His mother wrote letters in Sinhala and then they were translated to English and sent to me. About three years later, the charity said they could not support the project in Sri Lanka anymore because of the political situation.
"The war was going on and they just stopped the correspondence absolutely dead. They said I can’t write to him anymore. No saying" good bye. Nothing. They sent me a new list of countries asking me to find a child. I didn’t want to do that. I made a relationship with this family and this boy. I was very upset that I couldn’t even write and say good bye and I am very sorry. It was very upsetting.
"So, the years went on. I still didn’t have a family. All the friends around me, lot of them did have families. I became quite sad about this. Eventually, I tried to adopt a child on my own. That didn’t work out for various reasons. After a few years, my mother suggested that we go on holiday to Sri Lanka. I said I love to do that. Between us, we saved our money and we went to Sri Lanka.
"This was the year before the tsunami. I loved the country.
Before I left, I contacted the charity, which still existed under a different name. I said to them, please, please can you try and help me find this boy. He would now be about 17 or a bit older. They said they would try, but they kept on saying they had still not found him.
"In Sri Lanka, we had a wonderful holiday. We went around the country, but could not find him. I was very sad. When I got back, I had a message in my answering machine from the charity saying they found him. I rang the charity and told them it was too late.
"I asked them the boy’s contact details, but the charity declined quoting data protection and their privacy. They agreed to send him a message on my behalf but, I don’t know whether it went or not. I don’t know whether he did exist.
"Some people told me that it’s possible there was no such child and the charity made it up to get the money. But, for me there’s a lot of reason to believe that the child existed.
"About three years ago, I went on a holiday to Greece. While talking to other people about this experience, they said it will be a good story for a novel. This had not occurred to me. So, I started writing it and three years later, it is now ready to be published. When the novel was nearly finished, I went back to Sri Lanka, did a lot more research, checked all the information, checked some of the locations to set the scenes for the novel.
"I had a personal guide this time as it was an extensive trip. He feels this child did not exist. That’s his feeling. I don’t know. Again he tried to help me find him. By now, the boy must be in his 30s. There is no trace of this child anywhere".