When his uncle sends Triton, an eleven-year old boy, to work for Ranjan Salgado, bachelor scientist obsessed with the destruction of the Sri Lankan coral reefs, the young servant is so impressed by his master’s intellect and demeanor that he attempts to emulate him. As Triton recounts the details of his education, he focuses on cleaning and, especially, cooking skills, but this coming-of-age story is about Triton’s complete education. He resists a would-be rapist, experiences both lust and fear at the sight of Salgado’s naked mistress, learns about Western exploitation, listens unwillingly to leftist political propaganda, and witnesses sexual betrayal and revolutionary violence. After the death of Dias, one of Salgado’s cronies, Triton and Salgado flee to England, where Triton opens and successfully operates a restaurant.
Although REEF may not contain the traditional well-made plot, it is rich in description that is poetic in its metaphorical and symbolic language. Cooking is Triton’s creative outlet, and his development as a chef parallels that of a writer (REEF is Gunesekera’s second book and first novel). The reef itself, threatened by pollution, is a microcosm of the island nation threatened by corruption; and the abyss next to the reef surely symbolized Sri Lanka’s possible future. Robert, the Westerner who steals Nili, Salgado’s mistress, and later abandons her, reenacts the familiar colonial experience. A colonial experience that seems to benefit the colonized is embodied in the relationship of Triton, trained by a master who knows when to let go and return home, as Salgado eventually does to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, like Gunesekera, Triton remains a creative expatriate in exile.