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  • Reef
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4.1 out of 5 stars30
4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 16 November 2010
I recently read Monkfish Moon, a collection of short stories by the same writer. I like the way he uses language so brutally, conveying strange lands and lives I have never experienced in an accessible but fascinating way. Reading the short stories, I yearned for them not to finish so quickly, having only just begun to feel settled.

Then onto Reef... Triton, a young boy is thrown into the life of Mister Salgado, a wealthy marine biologist, both living in Sri Lanka. The story mainly follows Triton's growth from odd jobs boy to master chef. His descriptions of food and his obvious pride are both endearing and a little boring at times, depending on their length. The relationship between he and Mister Salgado though, is fascinating and complex. The fact that Mister Salgado doesn't like to eat in front of others is an example of the jarring in their relationship with a simple issue like this - Triton loves food and wants to show it off at every opportunity and Mister Salgado wants to keep it private and quiet.

Some of the political issues are not as well explained as I would like but there is a sense of trouble brewing throughout. I think the element of marine life and the sea is meant to be a symbolic representation of the country being overthrown by water, as it is later overthrown by violence, but this isn't always as clear as it should be either.

I think the character of Nili really rejuvenates the story about a third of the way through. My own qualm is that Triton barely leaves the house and therefore doesn't develop any kind of relationship with others who do not visit the house, particularly women. I guess the suggestion is that he does so in England, later in the novel.

Overall, I enjoyed the read. I only took two sittings to read it. Triton is likeable, Mister Salgado a complex fellow, Nili, endearing and a little controversial. The story is also interesting and written well. As I said, my main issues were the isolation in terms of Triton and sometimes the discussion between Mister Salgado and his friends, which aren't always clear to an outsider. Still one of the better novels I have read for a long time and a good writer I hope to read more of.
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Few readers will be able to resist the charm of Triton, who, eleven years old at the midpoint of the 20th century, becomes a member of Ranjan Salgado's Sri Lankan household as a houseboy. His life under the demanding and belligerent older servant Joseph is a challenge, and Gunesekera delightfully conveys Triton's point of view, skillfully revealing an 11-year-old's sensibilities and imagination as Triton envisions Joseph being brought low or stricken by disaster, while his own heroic acts save his master. As Triton gets older and acquires more and more responsibilities, Gunesekera reveals a character of unwavering conscientiousness whose personal devotion to Salgado and admiration for his intellectual accomplishments are absolute.
Reef is not just a story, however, as fascinating as that may be. It is a delicate allegory of the small changes which can bring cataclysmic results to a society, just as the coral reef which Ranjan Salgado studies is "very delicate. It has survived aeons, but even a small change in the immediate environment...could kill it." With the gap between the educated and the "underclass" in Sri Lanka very wide, and portentous changes occurring to the country politically, the reader is constantly reminded that, like the reef, "if the structure is destroyed...then the whole thing will go." As Salgado's love for Nili makes him more and more self-centered and less altruistic, and as political movements inspired by other countries become more aggressive, the "small changes in the immediate environment" begin for Triton.
In prose that shimmers with the light of the tropics and the scent of flowers, the reader is absorbed into the Sri Lankan jungle and sea, watching as the outside world propels along the small changes which may devour everything--the jungle, the sea, and the cultural fabric of which they have all been part for eons. As as one reads this remarkable novel, one joins with Triton and Salgado in yearning for peace, the "twilight when the forces of darkness and the forces of light are evenly matched and in balance [and] there is nothing to fear. No demons, no troubles, no carrion. An elephant swaying to a music of its own." Mary Whipple
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on 5 December 2000
Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera is an excellent story about human relationships and the coming of age through the loss of innocence. The story is told through the eyes of Triton, an 11-year-old houseboy in Sri Lanka and the changes his life goes through during the years he works for Mr. Salgado. The text is very simply worded making it a light enjoyable read. The extensive attention given to detail in this book provides the reader with a greater understanding of what life was like in Sri Lanka in the 1960's and 1970's. The lightness of the wording however, does not mean that there is nothing of value in the story. Gunesekera hits on many themes and provides the reader with many opportunities to take a closer look at what he is exposing about the parallels between Triton's life and the political upheavals occurring in Sri Lanka. Reef can be read in a few days but will leave the reader thinking about it for a long time to come.
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on 25 September 2006
After a short break in Sri Lanka, as someone of dual nationality with Sri Lanka I was enveloped by this book which I read in quite a short time. It begins well, but I found so much of it quite morbid and fearful, both at the level of political/terrorist violence and at a sexual level.

The author's trademark topic is food which is well treated in his short stories (read Monkfish Moon by him for more) and really well served up in Reef. This and many other exotic features such as wildlife, native patois are obvious highlights and selling points in the book. Dialogues are sketchy, incomplete and we can fill in the missing words even if the degree of articulateness is lacking or obtuse.

There are dark, brooding undercurrents and Mr Salgado ultimately is a failed, lonely guy - in romance and in his job (though the romantic side is incomplete - by the end and there may be reconcilliation). His failure is because of the nature of Sri Lanka itself apart from anything personal. The way that the governments there cannot be expected to protect people or do any real good and the way the country swings from one extreme to another. This is captured in the dialogue.

There are also dark sexual overtones/undertones in this book. Things to do with homosexuality, male bonding, fear psychoses, violence. Sexual references are covert and psychological - e.g., there is a greatly distorted story of Angulimala, more violent than the original describing a necklace of fingers, but in a subtext, penises. True to Sri Lankan style, we don't hear much beyond a couple gazing at each other and finding comfort in company. At the end there is a violent break up, perhaps too violent.

I am concerned that the impression of Sri Lanka conveyed may be overcritical, brooding and dark. I think the Man Eaters of Punanai by C. Ondaatje, conveys something of Sri Lanka's troubles and potential treasures without any brooding sentiment.

This book was dark, depressing and aromatic. Good to have read its limpid, chatty and at times disturbing/churning prose.
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This is a book of supreme poise and elegance. It's the story of Triton, a servant who works for Mr Salgado, tormented by his dislike of the man who gives him orders, Joseph. "What I disliked most about Joseph," he thinks, "Is the power he had over me." He comes to hate the man when he is the subject of a sexual assault at his hands. Joseph continues to wield power until the day he oversteps the mark by coming back to the house drunk. He is dismissed and Triton begins to learn how to look after his master in place of Joseph.

The prose has beautiful and sensual cadences as Triton travels with his master to the sea. Mr Salgado is much revered and liked, but he is a man who disdains power for its own sake. When the beautiful Miss Nili comes to stay Triton is entranced by her, and redoubles his effort to make increasingly elaborate meals for them and the friends of Miss Nili whom she invites to their dinners. There is the sense that Mr Salgado could be an important force in the attempts to preserve the reef, but his diffidence and a certain lack of agency affects his life. Nothing transpires from his studies of the flora and fauna of the reef. In the end there seems to be nothing but Mr Salgado's lethargy that stands in the way.

Beautifully written from the point of view of his faithful servant Triton this is in the end a disappointing, but perfectly consonant story. There is the suggestion that the world has failed Mr Salgado, rather than the other way around, when he is betrayed by a visitor who sleeps with Miss Nili.

"To Miss Nili's coterie of friends, she and Mr Salgado were a daring example of a real modern couple: in love, independent and carefree... An appealing contrast to the despondency of a nation grappling with the dilemmas of uneconomic development. Instead of an extended family we grew a network of admirers, oglers, hangers-on. They craved my cooking..."

Mr Salgado eventually takes Triton with him to London and gives him a chance to manage a small restaurant. But the story leaves one with a feeling of inertia and sadness. The beauty of the language is, in the end, not enough to conquer one's disappointment.
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on 9 May 2001
This story of a Sri Lankan houseboy (Triton) and his coming of age in the household of the pensive Mr Salgado, concerned only with the destruction of the coastal reef and the delightful Miss Nili, is one of the 90's best works. The numerous descriptions of Triton's culinary creations balance the equally sensual evocation of the island and its politics. A must for anyone, chef or student of the human condition.
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on 18 July 2013
Reef is an extraordinary novel. The prose, lyrical and rich with visual details, takes the reader into a fascinating world which seems partly real and partly imaginary. The voice of the young protagonist, Triton, is apparently simple and yet deeply observant and influenced by happenings around him - the changing external environment, the changing relationships within the house where he works as a cook and a houseboy. The journey of Triton seems parallel to the journey of his country in more than one way - a transition from a mythical innocence to a bigger world of change and uncertainty. Yet at the end, Triton's story is a story of hope, of survival, and of the essential human spirit that keeps our curiosity and compassion alive.
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on 11 April 2013
A beautifully written tale of a house boy observing both human relationships and a society on the brink of collapse. The magic ingredient is his love of cooking which weaves its way throughout the book
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on 26 March 2013
A beautifully written book set against a background of political upheaval and significant social change. We witness the growing up of the story teller as he grows from "houseboy" to praised chef and social raconteur in the service of a marine biologist. You can touch the characters and see and taste the food he creates as their established world falls apart. The book has an ending which leaves you wanting to know what happens next, a remarkable book. To say any more will spoil the experience for another reader -I liked it very much and will read more by this author.
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on 6 June 2009
Romesh Gunesekera has written one of the most elegant and moving novels I have ever read. Set in Shrilanka several years ago it deals with subjects as relevant in these perilous and agonising days as it was then; destruction of the coral reef, civil war, racism, poverty and coruption,but, and it is a very big but,with an unforgettable mastery of character and delicacy of emotion.It spans decades of recent history and environmental issues which should concern everyone and I would love to meet his characters in person, I feel I know them already. Lolita Bamford
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