Romesh Gunesekera Essay - Critical Essays

Gunesekera, Romesh


Romesh Gunesekera Reef

Gunesekera is a Sri Lankan-born English novelist and short story writer.

Gunesekera's first novel, Reef, explores the transition from British rule to troubled independence in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) through the eyes of the narrator, a young houseboy named Triton. Cook and caretaker for the remote and cerebral Mr. Salgado, a marine biologist educated in England, Triton embodies, with his cooking and mastery of "the art of good housekeeping," the island's increasingly forsaken traditions. The serenity of Salgado's life and household is disrupted, first, when he invites his mistress, the cosmopolitan Miss Nili, to live with him, and subsequently by the country's quickly encroaching political violence. Salgado and Triton eventually flee to London but find their old lives impossible to replicate. After several years of trying to give the devoted Triton a sense of independence, Salgado returns to Sri Lanka to care for Miss Nili, who has been paralyzed in the war's violence. Triton remains in England, using his culinary skills to become a successful restaurateur. Critical praise for the novel focuses on Gunesekera's rapturous descriptions of daily life in Sri Lanka, such as Triton's preparations for his first Christmas dinner and his delight in Miss Nili's reactions to his baking. Many critics applaud the contrast between the domestic details that form Triton's world and the larger themes of political and social strife. Reef was considered for Britain's Booker Prize and explores in greater depth some of the ideas encompassed in Monkfish Moon (1992), Gunesekera's previously published volume of short stories.


Aamer Hussein (review date 24 June 1994)

SOURCE: "The Destroying Sea," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4760, June 24, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following essay, Hussein favorably reviews Reef.]

In one of the finest stories in Monkfish Moon, Romesh Gunesekera's evocative and tantalizingly brief first collection, the narrator tells us of his deep and inarticulate relationship with an artisan who becomes his servant, managing, with startling sparseness, to convey the troubled state of Sri Lanka through the words and the silences of his characters. Reef, Gunesekera's first novel, reverses the story's central relationship to recount, this time in the words of the servant, the story of a similar relationship, explored in some depth with the author's customary precision and economy.

The novel begins with a London fragment. Triton, the narrator, now the self-possessed owner of a restaurant, meets, at a petrol station, a fellow-refugee. In spite of what they may have in common, they are divided by their mother tongues. But Triton can see that his Tamil compatriot, too, will "start with nothing", and is "painting a dream" of a lucrative future. Both have come from the "sea of pearls. Once a diver's dream. Now a landmark for gunrunners in a battle zone of army camps and Tigers". This encounter takes him on a return trip to where his life's journey effectively began: when, in 1962, he was brought, as a boy of eleven, by his uncle to the house of Mr Salgado, the kindly, intellectual marine biologist, with whom his destiny would be inextricably linked.

The first substantial section of the novel is the tale of Triton's apprenticeship. Hauntingly bleak and atmospheric, this is also the novel's most compelling and sustained piece of writing; Triton's sense of displacement from his rural milieu, and his adolescent terror of the lascivious, predatory head servant, Joseph, are deftly contrasted with their lush, tropical surroundings, vividly described. The lonely voice of the child interweaves with the more knowing tones of the adult narrator; practical reality and subterfuge combine with magical thinking to displace the demonic figure of Joseph, leaving Triton as sole...

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Julian Evans (review date 17 July 1994)

SOURCE: "Light as a Love Cake," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 17, 1994, p. 29.

[In the following positive review of Reef, Evans discusses the relationship between the two main characters—Triton, the narrator, and his employer, Mr. Salgado—and examines the comedic aspects of the novel.]

Mister Salgado's house has two white columns, and he asks about the failed coup as if it is unseasonable rain. The new houseboy "had never heard language so gently spoken … Ever after, when Mister Salgado spoke, I would be captivated". Salgado is a dreaming bachelor of impossible refinement. With a bachelor's deep sublimated passion for science, he collects endless data on the disappearing coral reef and, licking his lips with excitement, theorises to his friend Dias, the government accountant, about instruments of the future sensitive enough to record the still-circulating sound waves of his great-grandparents' conversation on their wedding night.

It's odd how familiar the distant, eccentric world of Romesh Gunesekera's first novel [Reef] is. (Eccentric politically as well as psychologically: the setting is Sri Lanka, which in the sixties was already wobbling badly on its post-colonial axis.) But the reader steps into the world of the houseboy, Triton, through the universally familiar perception of the child that doesn't know anything about what goes on past the garden gate, and latches on to new discoveries with the puzzlement, terror and wonder that every adult forgets. Halfway through the story, Mister Salgado gets a girlfriend. Miss Nili moves in, and Triton handles women's clothes for the first time:

With one hand I was able to lift a whole pile of thin shiny material … Underneath I discovered little black pieces and white garments: satin cups with pointed ends where the seams met, coupled up with straps and hooks and bits of elastic. I picked up another squidgy bundle but felt perhaps that this was all getting a little out of hand. The material was like nothing I had ever come across before; not like Mister...

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Guy Mannes-Abbott (review date 2 September 1994)

SOURCE: "Sea Changes," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 318, September 2, 1994, p. 38.

[In the following review, Mannes-Abbott comments that although Reef is "impressive," it displays somewhat less of the "Chekhovian clarity and brevity" found in his short story collection Monkfish Moon (1992).]

In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha wrote that it is "from those who have suffered the sentence of history—subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement—that we learn our most enduring lessons for living and thinking". Towards the end of his first novel, Romesh Gunesekera echoes Bhabha's wide thesis, while his preoccupation, made messy and dilute by the processes of fiction, is with the lessons for living and "enlarging the world with each flick of a tongue".

Reef displays many of the qualities of Gunesekera's assured collection of stories, Monkfish Moon (1992). In them he negotiated the terrain between Sri Lanka and Britain with a ventriloquist agility in sober, quietly crafted prose whose solution contained an eruptive intelligence.

In "Ullswater", for example, among the sheep and hollyhocks of a pastoral England, a young Sri Lankan encountered intimate truths about his dead, Anglophile father. The device is repeated in Reef, which begins with a section called "The Breach", in which Triton encounters a Sri Lankan...

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Richard Eder (review date 19 February 1995)

SOURCE: "Cooking Up a Storm," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 19, 1995, pp. 3, 11.

[An American critic and educator, Eder has received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. In the following review of Reef, he praises Gunesekera for providing the reader with a deeper understanding of the novel's characters and events than its narrator/protagonist possesses.]

It was 10 years or so into the bloody political and ethnic violence that, since the late 1950s, has afflicted the beautiful island that once was Ceylon and now is Sri Lanka:

All over the globe revolutions erupted, dominoes tottered and guerrilla war came of age; the world's first woman prime minister—Mrs. Bandaranaike—lost her spectacular premiership on our small island, and I learned the art of good housekeeping.

Reef, a novel about a youth who comes precariously together in a disintegrating world—like learning to fly in a plane that has already begun its fatal corkscrew plunge—shares the fragrant sweetness of its setting and its agony of change. It works them into the first-person narrative of a poor farmer's son for whom a job is wangled in Colombo as apprentice houseboy to Mr. Salgado, an eccentric intellectual who is the island's leading marine biologist.

Romesh Gunesekera has taken the risk of telling a large story in the tiny, almost cloying constriction of meals, recipes, furniture polishing and a boy's besotted reverence for the figure for whom he performed these tasks. There are times in The Reef—the loving preparation of a festive tea, a nerve-racking experiment with a Christmas turkey—when we could almost be reading a wry food-page feature about the perils and pleasures of Third World cookery. We are reading something quite different.

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Edward Hower (review date 26 March 1995)

SOURCE: "No Island Stays an Island," in The New York Times Book Review, March 26, 1995, p. 29.

[Hower is an American short story writer, novelist, critic, and educator. In the following review he compares Reef to Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day (1989) and Michael Ondaatje's Running the Family (1982), praising Gunesekera's ability to cast "a spell of nostalgia."]

"It was small, and yet its voice could fill the whole garden," says the narrator of Reef, describing an oriole that alights near his house. "In blissful ignorance it is completely beautiful; unruffled until its last moment." Lost innocence in the final years before a war is the...

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Neil Gordon (review date April 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Reef, in Boston Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, April, 1995, pp. 31-2.

[In the following review, Gordon discusses the Sri Lankan political history that informs Reef and argues that although he feels Gunesekera is "one of the two or three best writers I've encountered among my contemporaries," he has not convincingly integrated the political and the emotional realities of the story.]

In contemporary London, a Sri Lankan man stops at a gas station, pumps his gas, goes to pay. In the face of the boy in the cashier's booth, he sees a great familiarity, "almost a reflection" of his own. It is night, they are alone, and although compatriots, their...

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Pico Iyer (review date 22 June 1995)

SOURCE: "The Empire Strikes Back," in The New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995, pp. 30-1.

[Iyer is an English-born Indian journalist and critic. In the following review, he analyzes Reef as an example of postcolonial fiction, comparing it to Shakespeare's play The Tempest (1611), Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day (1989), and the work of other contemporary writers from former British colonies.]

The Tempest has become a model for postcolonial fiction. Who, after all, can resist a tale of spirits and savages being tamed and taught by a fugitive European aristocrat (later joined by a mixed-up band of drifters and dreamers and...

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Guy Amirthanayagam (review date 25 June 1995)

SOURCE: "No Man Is an Island," in Book World—The Washington Post, June 25, 1995, p. 5.

[Amirthanayagam is a Sri Lankan poet and essayist and the former ambassador from his country to England. In the following favorable review, he discusses Reef as a bildungsroman in which the main character's maturation is mirrored by the political changes in Sri Lanka.]

One of the impressive adventures of the 20th century is the rapidly burgeoning interpenetration of cultures. A rich fruit of this is a type of modern literature in which the central experience is cross-cultural and characters' destinies are shaped in some fashion by the cross-cultural encounter.


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