There must have been a thousand books in the sitting-room by the end, each a doorway leading somewhere I had never been before. And even after I had read all of them, each time I looked I would find something new. A play of light and shadow; something flitting in and out of a story I knew by heart.
Each time I read Reef – the story of a boy, Triton, growing up as a servant and cook in Sri Lanka in the late 1960s – I find something new. I think the way that The Tempest flits in and out of the novel is one of the things that keeps me rereading it. Another is the play of light and shadow in Romesh Gunesekera’s prose.
I lived in Colombo from 1992 to 1994, teaching English, and my first home was on Havelock Road where, only the year before, a bomb had exploded, throwing severed heads and body parts into the air. This, by Sri Lankan standards, was nothing. Like many others, I was struck by the incongruity of such horror in a country so deceptively gentle, one that looked so much like the Garden of Eden. In Reef Gunesekera seduces you with a charming depiction of a lost era, but underlying it all is the knowledge of the killing that came later.
The novel is framed in the early 1990s but recalls, through the eyes of a boy on the brink of adulthood, a period when the island was on the verge of its first insurgencies. Triton, its narrator, and his master, Mister Salgado, eventually flee Sri Lanka for a new life in London after the ‘disappearance’ of Mister Salgado’s closest friend. So it is from England, after twenty years of ‘staggering brutality’ in Sri Lanka, that Triton looks back on their life there; an encounter with a Tamil refugee in a petrol station takes him back to ‘a bay-fronted house six thousand miles away’.
When I first read Reef, I was taken back all those miles too. I felt a surge of joyful familiarity with the scarlet-flowering rathmal and the jas
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