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V.V. Ganeshananthan knows how to grab the reader's attention and hold it in her propulsive second novel, "Brotherless Night."

"I recently sent a letter to a terrorist I used to know," begins narrator Sashi, reflecting on the events that led to her exile from Sri Lanka in New York City. Sashi then reflects on the meaning of the word "terrorist": "We begin with this word. I promise that you will come to see that it cannot contain everything that has happened."

Everything, in this case, is the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) between the Tamil Tigers and the government's Sinhalese majority forces. Everything is also the story of Sashi's family, members of the Tamil ethnic minority, and how they have been torn apart by the war and the events leading up to it.

As a young high school student, Sashi dreams of testing into medical school, like her beloved older brother Niranjan, and his best friend, called K. Sashi sees education as a way to make a place for herself in a society where active discrimination by the government against Tamils is legal and an everyday part of life for Sashi and her family. Still, Sashi's days are filled with love for her parents and four brothers, and a secret longing for the handsome, kind and brilliant K.

However, after a riot that ends in Niranjan's death, two of Sashi's brothers and K join the Tigers, a Tamil separatist group, in an act of idealism, hoping to protect their families and their communities from further violence.

Sashi herself goes on to medical school, where she is asked by the Tigers to help in their cause. But as years of war unfold, acts of violence lead to cycles of retribution, and tragedy for all.

Ganeshananthan's attention to the small details of love, of caring, of human empathy make the reader feel deeply for all her characters. Consider the exquisite way she describes people's hands throughout the book. Of a respected teacher, she writes, "His slim, elegant fingers sketched the shape of a heart in the air, and mine leapt with interest."

And when Sashi meets up with K again after years of separation, Ganeshananthan is able to conjure the young couple's longing through a single touch: "He reached out and wrapped his fingers around mine, so that we were walking and holding hands, and I wondered if anyone could see us, if I wanted that, if it would matter if someone saw, and then I knew that no one could, because if anyone could, he would never have done it. This stolen, safe hour could not last."

Riveting, heartbreaking and extraordinary for both its empathetic gaze and its clear-eyed depiction of the brutality of war, "Brotherless Night" is a masterpiece. Ganeshananthan, whose first novel, "Love Marriage," was longlisted for the Woman's Prize, teaches in the MFA program at the University of Minnesota.

May-lee Chai is the author of "Tomorrow in Shanghai" and a frequent critic for the Star Tribune.

Brotherless Night

By: V.V. Ganeshananthan.

Publisher: Random House, 337 pages, $28.

Event: Book launch, in conversation with Curtis Sittenfeld, 7 p.m. Jan. 26, Magers and Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. Registration required at