There’s a lot to applaud in Sunil Yapa’s debut novel. He combines words and creates scenes in unique ways, blending words unexpectedly to create a moment or invoke a sense. His descriptions are detailed without tipping over to the realm of overkill and the results are characters and scenes that are easy to visualize. The problems of Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist are more political than structural.
This novel takes place in one day, at the beginning of the WTO Riots that took place in 1999. The so-called “Battle in Seattle” was a peaceful protest about the unfair treatment of the developing world that turned violent. I remember it in the news a bit, the photos of police and protesters clashing in the streets, almost two decades ago. Yapa uses alternating perspectives of a few different characters in the crowd that day – both protestors and police – to tell the story.
At the heart of the action is Victor, a teenage runaway who ends up in the middle of the riot by accident, and his estranged father, who just so happens to be chief of the Seattle Police. While this connection is, perhaps, a little convenient, I was initially intrigued. It seemed like a powerful way to tell the story from two opposing sides yet still with mutual empathy. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that this isn’t that kind of story. This is a 2016 story about police. Which would be fine – it is 2016 after all – if this weren’t supposed to be a day set in 1999. The view of that day in Seattle, as seen in Yapa’s novel, is soaked in a 2016 viewpoint and it makes the story feel dishonest. This is a story about police brutality and I don’t think it’s the way the story would have been told in 1999. It’s the story of police brutality and racism in the United States in the last couple of years but for some reason it’s set in 1999.
I was a teenager in 1999 so I was only dimly aware of the events in Seattle. As I read Your Heart is a Muscle, I did a little bit of research, reading some newspaper articles from 1999 as well as some more recent writing. The details of what happened, who did what, and how it started are still unclear in many ways. Certainly, there was police brutality. However, the brutality of the police as shown in Your Heart is a Muscle is extreme and grotesque. The police characters are just that, characters (The police chief’s name, for example, is changed from his real-life counterpart). This is a novel. Yet it’s a novel based on real events that didn’t occur that long ago and I think it’s dangerous on Yapa’s point to make up such actions. My biggest problem was that, with all the varying characters and perspectives, he doesn’t offer a counterpoint. The police officers are all awful and cruel. There is what might have been an attempt to offer a more rounded view of one of the worst characters but it’s too little, too late. I’m not sure if Yapa didn’t really want to humanize a truly awful character or if he wasn’t quite skilled enough as a writer to create a more nuanced human being.
The action of the riots is interrupted with interludes from a Sri Lankan delegate, stopped from getting to his important meetings of the WTO by the protesters. Here again is a lost opportunity. This is the chance for the novel to really delve into what the protests were about. I thought the view of what Sri Lanka stands to gain and lose from the WTO was interesting and for a while it seemed like here would be the sort of ambiguity a writer can leave their reader with. A sort of grey zone that tells the reader the writer believes you to be smart enough to really ponder the big questions. Unfortunately, by the end of the novel, Yapa has pounded us firmly into black-and-white and, frankly, made his own character look flat and foolish.
I’m coming down hard on this one, I know, and it’s because I was disappointed. There’s some good writing here. The plot has a lot of potential. The setting is unique. There could have been real power here. I don’t know of another novel that delves into this riot and there are a lot of questions about what happened that are still left unanswered. In the end, while there’s enough that works here that I would recommend Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, I would also say, I hope for more and for better from Yapa’s next work.