For my eighth Orbis Terrarum read, I savored Romesh Gunesekera's Reef (NY: Riverhead Books, 1996) about life in his native Sri Lanka before civil war tore apart this beautiful island nation in the 1980s. I had previously enjoyed reading Michael Ondaatje's "Anil's Ghost", which is also set in modern Sri Lanka and contrasts lyrical descriptions of the lush, tropical setting and the hellacious ravages of war. I was not disappointed with this second portrayal of the former Ceylon, a giant tear drop set in the Indian Ocean.
Reef was was a finalist for the Booker Prize and one can see why it garnered this attention. Gunesekera's writing is deceptively simple, yet it conjures up exotic and unusual images. The novel depicts the coming of age of Triton, a young boy taken in by a bachelor marine biologist, Mr. Salgado, when his mother dies and his father descends into alcoholism. Triton grows up to become an accomplished cook and main household servant for Mr. Salgado when he gets into a struggle with an older manservant, Joseph. Here's Gunesekera's ominous description of Joseph:
"He was not a big man but he hd a long rectangular head shaped like a devil-mask. His face was heavy and his lower jaw jutted out, making his head look detached from his bdy. A sullen heart compressed the muscles beneath the skin of his face in a permanent grimace. He had big hands that would appear out of nowhere. And as I was always trying to avoid him and never looked up at him, the sight of his hands suddenly on a doorknob or reaching for a cloth was terrifying."
Triton is not educated, but he is extremely observant and reads and re-reads the contents of the Salgado book shelves. Triton is devoted to his benefactor and reveres his live-in lover, Miss Nili, but he has nothing but disdain for Salgado's boorish houseguests when they trample his immaculately clean rooms and gobble his intricate banquets. A Christmas turkey feast is wonderfully etched by the author's words, as he shows each dinner guest's inner soul by the way they approach their plates.
Ultimately, the story ends with a melancholy and reflective finish, but it was a treat to read. This book will remain in my home library, a rare honor for me to bestow upon a novel. Highly recommended.