on 4 August 2002
In this excellent collection of nine short stories, Romesh Gunesekera provides an insight into a world of nostalgia, regret and loss. All of the stories are either set in Sri Lanka, or about Sri Lankans effectively exiled abroad, and rather like the island's famous jewels, and perhaps, the island itself, this collection is small but perfectly formed. Gunesekera sets the scene in each story with a deftness of touch and an economy of style, and his characterisations are both plausible and moving. Above all, the stories are far more ambiguous and involving than they initially appear.
Let's take the example of 'Captives', a story about Mr Udaweera, the owner of a newly opened guest house near Sigiriya, and his first guests, an English couple called the Hornimans. Udaweera assumes the Hornimans are on their honeymoon, and goes out of his way to help them, eventually overstepping the thin line between hospitality and emotional involvement. Udaweera insists on escorting the couple on a trip to see the famous damsel frescoes at Sigiriya, and in the glow of the afternoon light, and surrounded by the erotic graffiti of the Mirror Wall, he finds himself impossibly drawn to Mrs Horniman. Unable to act upon his impulsive attraction towards her, Udaweera increasingly indulges in both solipsism and voyeurism. As the couple leave the guest house for the trip to Colombo and the flight home, never to return, he finds out that the 'Hornimans' are neither married nor on their honeymoon.
The themes of loss, of choices not taken, and of the inevitability of history, run through all nine of the stories. In the story 'Batik', Gunesekera subtilely depicts the disintegration of the interracial marriage between Tiru (Tamil) and Nalini (Sinhala) in their self-imposed exile in a nondescript London terraced house. They are able to physically escape the ethnic carnage of the 1983 riots, but not their emotional or psychological effects. In the suitably named 'Storm Petrel', the anonymous narrator retells a chance encounter with an old Sri Lankan friend in a second hand book shop in Bloomsbury. CK tells the narrator that he has decided to chuck in his boring London job and return home to set up a small beach hotel near Trincomalee. His enthusiasm is as infectious as the narrator's sense of impending disaster, for the story is set in the summer of 1983, just weeks before Sri Lanka was torn apart by conflict. Gunesekera handles his material with consummate ease and considerable sophistication; we never learn, for example, whether CK does go back, or whether, like so many of his fellow countrymen, he is still marooned thousands of miles from home, with only his memories for comfort.
'Monkfish Moon' is a beautifully crafted, thought provoking collection of short stories about a country that is so often overshadowed by its giant neighbour to the north. These are startlingly accurate but unsentimental portraits of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Diaspora life. Above all, Gunesekera rises above the overused and unthinking image of Sri Lanka simply as a paradise despoiled. I would highly recommended this collection to anyone with even a passing interest in Sri Lanka.
Collection of 9 short stories, mainly set in Sri Lanka and tinged with the issues of war. Not a lot happens in them; they are really a moment in time, but beautifully and movingly described.
I really liked 'Storm Petrel' where two friends meet up in Britain. One has just been back to Sri Lanka on holiday, and intends to return to start a guest-house. His dream wins the narrator over:
'The salt in the sea air lulled us almost to a sleep. Overhead the sea breeze echoed the roar of the surf as coconut trees brushed their heads together, whispering like giants planning our destiny. The sun was hot. CK was going over each step of his dream. But in just two months the whole island would be engulfed in flames...mined and strafed and bombed and pulverized, CK's beach...would be dug up, exploded and exhumed.'
Also enjoyed 'Carapace', where the narrator - a young girl with a care-free, happy relationship with a cook, is being inveigled into a suitable marriage with a well to do Sri Lankan in Australia with a 'real' job....
Having recently visited Sri Lanka, I really enjoyed the descriptions of the country. And the author's ability to portray the awkwardnesses and tensions between two people is excellent, notably between the master and servant in in 'A House in the Country'. Enjoyable read.