Reef by Romesh Gunesekera

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Reef
By Romesh Gunesekera
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Trade (February 1, 1996)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1573225339
ISBN-13: 978-1573225335

Right at the very end of my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I read that one of the novels the author liked was Reef by Romesh Gunesekera. I decided I would re-read this book.

Reef is not a difficult book to read for it is small in size. On this website, this is the description given for this book:

Reef is a love story set in a spoiled paradise. It is told by Triton, who at the age of eleven goes to work as houseboy to Mister Salgado, a marine biologist obsessed by swamp, sea movements and the island’s disappearing reef. Triton learns to polish silver; to mix a love cake with ten eggs, creamed butter and fresh cashew nuts; and to steam the exotic parrot fish for his master’s lover. As Triton recounts his story, an extraordinary voice emerges: naive and knowing, fearful and brave, a boy becoming a man in a world on the brink of chaos.

On the same website, it is stated that, ‘Romesh Gunesekera was born in 1954 in Sri Lanka where he spent his early years. Before coming to Britain he also lived in the Philippines. He now lives in London as a writer but travels widely. Recently he has been a writer-in-residence in Copenhagen, Singapore, Hong Kong and Southampton.’ I was fortunate enough to listen to him speak when he visited Silverfish Books, in Kuala Lumpur. There are two things I remember most from this meeting:

 

  • When he read from his book, he chose a passage which describes one of Triton’s creations. He spoke so very slowly; every word was pronounced and there was nothing hurried in his manner. It made listening to this author an absolute joy.
  • He mentioned that when his agent first saw the manuscript, the agent commented that it was a very short work. I suppose, I found it such a fascinating thing to remember because I often wonder what was implied in that comment. Was it a query as to whether the book was any good since it was so short? I never dared to ask.

The book was certainly very good. From the moment I started, I could not put this book down. The words flowed from start to end. Here are two passages that will show how meticulous the author was in his writing:

Mister Salgado, Ranjan Salgado, was a bachelor. A sweet smell clung to him, heady and unnatural, derived from an ivory bottle shaped like a bell and impossible to open properly. He would shake tiny, powerful drops out of the metal clasp at the top of its narrow neck and rub them on his hands, or his face or body. The scent made me think of cinnamon bushes, but it was the nature of the town to deceive.

 

&

 

After serving the tea, I went out into the garden. With the sun down, the air moved gently as though the plants had begun to breathe again having held their breaths all day. The drone of insects rose like scent. It was the time of the day when flowers would fall from the tress, petals bouncing off the small branches and resting briefly on a lower leaf before being released to touch the earth and die. ….

The backdrop of the story is the civil war in Sri Lanka. It is in the last sentence of this novel – a sentence that is so beautiful and profound – that the horror of war and its lasting repercussions are most evident: A couple of hours later he flew out, after a glimmer of hope in a far-away house of sorrow.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading and re-reading this book. The story has remained with me to the point where I often wonder what happened to both Mr. Salgado and Triton. Did Mr. Salgado meet his beloved Nili? Did they rekindle their romance? Did Triton find much happiness in the UK? Then, I realise, it’s just fiction. And I feel sad.

30 January 2009

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