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...
(The entire section is 907 words.)