The first thing you notice about Sri Lankan-born novelist and artist Roma Tearne is her voracious passion, for everything from politics and art to the mundane details of daily life. That, and her impish sense of humour. Mention, for instance, the laudatory reviews bestowed on her Costa Book Awards shortlisted debut novel of love and war, Mosquito, and she mimics the voices of those British reviewers who brought up the subject of her age: 'And here we have somebody at 50,' she intones, before launching into an impassioned explanation of why people who have chalked up more than a modicum of life experience make the best novelists. Tearne, 53, is also quick to tell you that, after spending more than two decades working as an artist and filmmaker in Britain, she is still adapting to her new identity as a novelist. 'It is really very strange to see how Mosquito took off and had a life of its own in a way that you have no control over. It has all happened so quickly.' Literary life has moved swiftly for Oxford-based Tearne since she picked up her pen a mere five years ago. With her second novel, Bone China, now out, Tearne describes her inclusion on the shortlist for the 2007 Costa prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize) 'as kind of a treat really. I didn't expect anything.' She is also astonished that Mosquito was recently shortlisted for this year's Kiriyama Prize, whose award for fiction was won this week by Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip. 'I had no contacts in the literary world, all my friends were artists,' she says. 'I wrote a novel when was I was 19 but didn't do anything with it because I didn't know what to do with it. And then I just went off to art school and made a living - with great difficulty, I might add - as a painter. So that by the time I came to write it really was a compulsion. It's really very strange.' Stranger perhaps, for a debut novelist at least, is the astonishing range and power of Mosquito, which dazzled critics and readers with its vivid portrayal of the horrors and misunderstandings of Sri Lanka's civil war. Set in Sri Lanka, London and Venice, it tells the story of Theo Samarajeeva, a successful author who returns to his homeland after the death of his Italian wife, only to slip into a friendship and love affair with a young artist, Nulani, which brings devastating consequences to both. Lyrical and moving, it drew comparisons with Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and was described by the Costa judges as 'poignant, exquisitely told and a captivating view of unusual love and survival'. Equally intriguing is the way her new novel, Bone China (written, in fact, before Mosquito), manages to pack even more emotional punch than her official debut. Tearne began writing Bone China in response to her mother's death, while working on a series of images called House of Small Things. Consisting of paintings and photographs of a doll's house she took to Britain from Sri Lanka aged 10, when moving with her parents, the House of Small Things project - which later toured Britain - triggered in her a powerful sense of longing for the Sri Lanka of her childhood. 'It was almost physical,' recalls Tearne, 'and Mosquito comes from that response. Suddenly the narrative and my own lost childhood, denied for so long, spilled out in words. I didn't set out to write a book about the war in Sri Lanka. It just attached itself to the narrative.' Even now, Tearne has difficulty talking about Bone China without discussing Mosquito, so deeply are the two novels entwined with her own life. But in many ways Bone China, which tells the story of a Sri Lankan family in exile, is a more conscious, more restrained work. 'I learned quite a lot from writing the first one,' she says. 'I feel my issues are women's issues, that women can be powerful, can say things, not political things, but human things, and that's what I was trying to get into Bone China - that it's possible to talk about loss and war without bringing politics into it.' Set partly in Sri Lanka, mostly in Britain, Bone China spans three generations and tells the story of Grace de Silva, wife of the spendthrift but charming Aloysius, her five children and a garrulous and deliciously politically incorrect pet bird, a mynah called Jasper. Thornton, the most beautiful child and Grace's favourite, dreams of becoming a poet. Alicia wants to become a concert pianist and Jacob, the eldest, is desperate to escape to Britain. But Grace has a secret and when Christopher, the youngest and the rebel of the family, is caught up in the civil unrest that is brewing, tragedy follows. The family is torn apart when four of the children decide to leave for Britain, leaving only Frieda, who nurtures her own private grief, to remain with her parents. In London, where the siblings struggle to gain a foothold, only Thornton's daughter, Anna-Meeka, is able to tap into the rich possibilities that once seemed to beckon the De Silva family. Tearne's portrayal of the eccentric and prosperous family's gradual disintegration is a sharply observed, often comic, often heartbreaking, unexpectedly compelling tale that brings home the costs of war and migration. It is also the story of a family whose rivalries and jealousies seem only to underscore those wider national jealousies that triggered Sri Lanka's troubles. For Tearne, who was born to a Tamil father and a Sinhalese mother and experienced first hand the deep rifts between the different sides of her extended family, it was a case of 'imputing stuff that I felt as a child. It does exist.' Like Mosquito, which brought her face to face with some horrific childhood memories, including witnessing a man being burned alive - a moment seared into the novel - Bone China includes many autobiographical elements. But Tearne is quick to insist that the actual characters of her book bear no resemblance to those of her parents, even though her family did own an outspoken pet mynah called Jasper and even though, she confides, they 'never really coped with their immigration to Britain. That's what happens when you emigrate late in life. They must have been in their 40s. My mother was a very clever woman and my father was a very extroverted, happy man, and then he just changed. I saw only in hindsight, sadly after they died, what the price was for leaving, for them, and I hoped that was what I put into the book. 'It's so sad because none of them is left and I often fantasise what might it have been like had there been no war, had we stayed, what sort of person I would have been.' She says she spent much of her adolescence, just as Anna-Meeka does, trying to integrate into society in England, something she achieved, although her parents didn't. For Tearne, who also has a flair for comedy, the notion of identity is what powers her writing. 'Although I wanted to make Bone China comic, I didn't want to make it a comic novel,' she says. 'I didn't want to produce characters that were caricatures. I feel the identity of an immigrant is very fragile. They either have to ham it up in the country they're in - be an Asian who laughs at himself - or do what my parents did, which is - through fear in their case - turn their backs on their country and form a ghetto. And as a writer, I want to be able to discuss the possibility of doing both: not turning your back on the host country, not turning your back on your past, but keeping a dual identity. To show that it is not wrong to integrate and keep your roots; that you don't have to have one or the other, that you are just a person.' Tearne has drawn criticism from the subcontinent, where some observers have accused her of writing an 'imperialistic sort of fairy tale' and from members of the Sri Lankan community, particularly members of her extended Sri Lankan family, who were angry about the way she portrayed Sri Lanka's civil war in Mosquito. But Tearne remains unapologetic. 'I'm not interested in the politics of it. I'm not taking sides. I'm interested in the human casualties of war. And I really think that the only answer is integration. There is no other answer. They can't go on killing people.' With a third novel about integration all but completed and a fourth under way, Tearne says, 'I have no idea why I write. It's such an exhausting, lonely business. Painting is quite a jolly activity by comparison. But it is the only thing I want to do. I'm sure of that now. In a sense I feel as if I've lost time, in that I really am compelled. When I was a child my mother used to say, 'You're a liar,' because I was always lying, but actually I wasn't, I was just making up stories. And so I think I wasn't a complete person until the day I began to write,' she says, laughing. Writer's notes Name Rome Tearne Genre Literary fiction Latest book Bone China (HarperPress) Next project A novel Age 53 Born Sri Lanka Family Married to British academic J.B. Bullen, with three children Lives Oxford, England Other jobs Artist and filmmaker Other works Mosquito (HarperPress, 2007) What the critics say: 'Heart-rending. Readers of this powerful novel [Mosquito] cannot fail to be moved but they will also realise that, as well as being a rebuke to indifference, the book is also about hope and survival.' - Christopher Ondaatje in The Spectator 'Mosquito plays with sensuous mixes of human bestiality and natural beauty. It is in this continuing agency of remembered love - presented as the colours, sounds and smells of art, in dialogue with beauty and horror - that the uplifting politics of this fine novel lie.' - The Independent 'Mosquito lyrically captures a country drenched in both incomparable beauty and the stink of hatred.' - The Guardian 'Anyone who has visited, or has a passing interest in Sri Lanka, should read this beautiful novel.' - Sunday Telegraph Author's bookshelf Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi 'The love of literature, mixed in with the narrative in it, is fantastic in this book.' Other Colours by Orhan Pamuk 'I love his mad dedication to words, his integrity, his crazy passion.' Runaway by Alice Munro 'Amazing plot, appearing out of nothing; characterisation so sharply observed; wonderful form, so economic.' Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald 'Wonderful insight into human nature, wonderful understanding of the way memory works.' To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf 'The most musical writer in the universe! I'd kill to have created just one of her sentences.'