Gunesekera, Romesh 1954-
Gunesekera, Romesh 1954-
Born 1954, in Colombo, Sri Lanka; children: two daughters.
Novelist and short-story writer. Served as writer-in-residence in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Denmark.
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, 2004.
Arts Council Writers' Bursary, 1991; finalist, David Higham Prize, 1992, Commonwealth Writers' Regional Prize, 1993, and Notable Book of the Year, New York Times, 1993, all for Monkfish Moon; finalist for Booker Prize, finalist for Guardian Fiction Prize, Best First Work award, Yorkshire Post, all 1994, and Premio Mondello, 1997, all for Reef; nominated for New Voice Award; BBC Asia Award for Achievement in Writing and Literature, 1998.
Monkfish Moon (short stories), Granta Books (London, England), 1992, New Press (New York, NY), 1992, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Reef (novel), New Press (New York, NY), 1995.
The Sandglass (novel), Granta Books (London, England), 1998, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Heaven's Edge (novel), Grove Press (New York, NY), 2002.
The Match (novel), Bloomsbury (London, England), 2006.
In his highly acclaimed stories and novels, Romesh Gunesekera sets his native Sri Lanka at the center of the action. On the strength of his first volume of short stories, 1992's Monkfish Moon, and his first novel, 1994's Reef, Gunesekera was placed by critics in the select company of the most promising young British writers; D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke declared him "arguably one of the top twenty young British novelists" in Contemporary Novelists, and poet-diplomat Guy Amirthanayagam, writing in the Washington Post Book World, informed readers: "He bids fair to join the likes of V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Timothy Mo and Kazuo Ishiguro." Monkfish Moon was less than 140 pages long—Suzanne Berne, in the New York Times Book Review, called it a "slender, evocative book"—but as Goonetilleke pointed out, "each story is distinct in spite of a common motif of refurbishing dilapidated interiors and … an ironic theme of severance, parting, fracture, and failure." With further novels, including 1998's TheSandglass, 2002's Heaven's Edge, and 2006's The Match, Gunesekera has consolidated those early appraisals of his literary potential, eliciting praise from critics and fellow writers alike.
Though several of the stories in Monkfish Moon are set in London, Sri Lankan life, and especially the civil war between Tamil and Sinhala forces, makes itself felt from across the sea. D.J. Taylor, reviewing the book for the New Statesman and Society, felt that the stories were strongest when politics emerged quietly from the background as in "Batik" and "A House in the Country," rather than being placed in the foreground of the narration as in "Storm Petrel." Taylor felt that "Gunesekera's forte is atmosphere: tiny intimations of disquiet, sudden adjustments to the psychological thermostat against a background of political turmoil…. [He] achieves his best effects in stories where character resists the thraldom imposed on it by environment." Taylor further named the title story and "Carapace" as examples of this strength.
The novel Reef solidified Gunesekera's growing reputation. A coming-of-age story about a young domestic servant named Triton, it is set mainly in the 1960s but is narrated in flashback from the vantage point of thirty years later. As a boy, Triton is brought into the house of Salgado, a marine biologist obsessed with saving a local reef. Triton acquires the skills of cookery, and, within the limits of the experiences available to him, grows in sophistication. A worldly Sri Lankan woman, Nili, enters the household as Salgado's lover. The lovers part on bitter terms, after which Salgado and Triton move to London. In that city, Triton achieves a degree of independence as owner of a prosperous snack bar and eventually a restaurant. In the end, Salgado returns to the ravaged land of Sri Lanka to rejoin Nili, who has been psychologically maimed and rendered homeless by the communal violence.
Critics received Reef enthusiastically, praising in particular its language and characters. "The strength of the novel lies in its treatment of individual lives and personal relations and in its characteristic use of language," wrote Goonetilleke. "Gunesekera's style is sensuous and impassioned, almost incandescent," proclaimed Amirthanayagam. Travel writer Pico Iyer, in the New York Review of Books, was also impressed by the subtle beauties of Gunesekera's apparently simple prose, calling the book an "unusual prose-poem." Referring to the novel's "exquisitely sensuous surface," Iyer elaborated that the book was "lush" with descriptions of flora and fauna, of scents and sights: "The strength of Reef, in fact, lies in its unforced and convincing depiction of a self-contained universe." Iyer added praise for the novelist's supple technique: "The remarkable thing about this novel, indeed, is that it achieves nearly all of its effects silently, as it were, through almost imperceptible shadings of language and texture…. Reef proceeds so gently and lyrically—whispering around us like a murmurous sea—that it is easy to overlook just how subversive the book is." The subversiveness and "singular courage" of the book, Iyer commented, lay in its presentation of social corruption as deeper than ideology or fashion. All in all, Reef was, for that reviewer, "the best novel from the subcontinent since Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey…. Calmly, it gives us a new and unexpected world, and gradually it makes it feel like home."
Neil Gordon, in the Boston Review, compared the central Christmas-dinner scene in Reef to James Joyce's novella The Dead, and called the young author "one of the two or three best writers I've encountered among my contemporaries." Like other critics, Gordon loved what he termed Gunesekera's "wholly original, very ambitious language," and applied the epithet "exquisite." Gordon doubted whether the novel succeeded in weaving topical political concerns organically into Triton's first-person narrative; however, he clarified, "emotional realities are what this book, in its perceptive, quiet voice, is most convincingly about." Aamer Hussein, a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, also commented on the short-storylike nature of the novel, surmising that "the author … has cunningly contrived to compose his novel of fragments structured like complete stories; but each story is deliberately deprived of an essential element, which is later revealed at the right moment."
Another aspect of Gunesekera's achievement that came in for praise was his creation of character, particularly that of Salgado. Richard Eder, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, called Salgado "a wonderful mix of abstraction and urgency." Eder praised Gunesekera for saying so much within the deliberately confined scope of a first-person tale about a servant: "[He] has taken the risk of telling a large story in the tiny, almost cloying constriction of meals, recipes, furniture polishing and a boy's besotted reverence for the figure for whom he performed these tasks." The risk paid off, Eder implied, thus meriting its author respect both for courage and for achievement.
Similar themes are presented in Gunesekera's second novel, The Sandglass, which "addresses the search for a personal and national sense of belonging," according to Akash Kapur in the New York Times Book Review. In this novel, the author indirectly tells the story of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war in the tale of a long-standing feud between two families, the Ducals and the Vatunases. The feud, like the country's war, involves contested land, in this case a house bought by Jason Ducal in Colombo that was once a part of the Vatunas estate. Set in London, the book is filtered through the thoughts of an expatriate from Sir Lanka, Chip, whose memories are spurred by the death of Pearl Ducal and the arrival from Colombo of her son, Prins Ducal, for his mother's funeral. The reader is introduced to four generations of conflict between the Ducal and Vatunas families via bits and pieces of diaries and anecdotes as the novel moves back and forth in time and place.
This book elicited more praise from the critics. Bonnie Johnston, writing in Booklist, called it a "touching drama" that is "part murder mystery, part historical fiction." Iyer, reviewing the novel in Time, commended the author's "exquisite, jeweled miniatures" that give the book depth and resonance. For Janet Ingraham Dwyer in the Library Journal, it was a "tender, accomplished novel." Similarly, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called it a "poignant tale." Not all reviewers were full of praise, however. Nisid Hajari, writing in Time International, faulted the novel for its characters who "speak with inconsistent voices—formal one moment, almost incomprehensively colloquial the next." Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, also found problems with the narrative structure. Noting that the book "evokes a miasma of familial and national evil," Eder further observed that the "author's indirection and cloudiness and the paralyzed destinies of his characters … produce narrative confusion and bog it down." For Hugo Barnacle, writing in the Sunday Times, however, "the anecdotal retrospection of the narrative is a good way to catch the atmosphere created by a death in the family." Christina Koning of the London Times thought that the author was "adept at conveying an elegiac mood, and there are passages of great poignancy in his book." More praise came from Maya Jaggi in the Guardian, who concluded that "this novel reaffirms Gunesekera's strengths in illuminating intimate truths through a minimal plot."
In Gunesekera's 2002 novel, Heaven's Edge, the protagonist, Marc, returns to an unnamed island, much like the author's native Sri Lanka, in an "almost epic quest to discover and understand both his homeland and himself," according to Library Journal reviewer Caroline Hallsworth. Back in his environmentally despoiled island, Marc meets Uva, an ecology activist, who introduces him to her world of resistance against the repressive regime. Here to find his father, Marc instead finds love, and then loses it when government troops set out after Uva. Marc, too, becomes an enemy of the regime and is incarcerated in a government camp until he manages to escape, and then begins a journey to find Uva. As a reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented, this search "has moments of both breathtaking suspense … and quiet introspection." For the same reviewer, the "compelling romance [between Marc and Uva] makes this one of [Gunesekera's] best efforts." A critic for Kirkus Reviews called the book "strange [and] lyrical," while Booklist reviewer Michele Leber observed that the author "writes lyrically and with feeling," combining "elements of fable and magic realism."
Other critics found fault with the characterization and more fanciful elements, however. Phil Baker, for example, writing in the Sunday Times, felt the book was "ambitious but unsatisfying," and Peter Bien noted in World Literature Today that the "novel's artistry fails to match the promise of its theme." Though despairing of the "fair amount of eco-babble" in the book, the Sunday Telegraph reviewer David Robson found that "the novel is also, at its best, an engaging adventure story set in an unusual landscape, exquisitely described." Similar praise came from other reviewers. Kapur commended the "spare and muscular" prose in the book and further observed that the "story may be dreamlike, but [Gunesekera's] prose is resolutely grounded." Heaven's Edge is, for Kapur, a "story that uses realism to transcend reality, to hint at deeper mysteries and more profound truths." Abdulrazak Gurnah, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, called it a "gripping novel written with an unforced poetic assurance."
The Match is a fish-out-of-water tale that follows a young Sri Lankan boy from his childhood in Manila to a very different life in England. The title refers to cricket, but the game itself is nothing more than an example of the cultural differences between England, Manila, and Sri Lanka. Sunny is the child of a pianist who died when he was too young to remember her, and a journalist who travels so much for his job that he barely knows his son. These roots reflect Sunny's adulthood, when he is a poor father and faces a series of failures over the course of his life, working at a variety of jobs, never settling into a real career. Gunesekera uses Sunny as an example of a less-than-successful life in exile, where the lack of family or true connections results in a life of drifting and confusion. Both the cultural and political circumstances are painted broadly, giving readers a lush look at the contrasts between the two settings. David Crane, writing for the Spectator, dubbed the book "a compassionate and completely convincing portrait of exile, sobering but oddly and doggedly hopeful," and noted that "the real strength of this book lies in the portrait of his hero." Reviewing for World Literature Today, Charles Sarvan opined that the book "confirms Romesh Gunesekera as a perceptive and sensitive, restrained and subtle writer."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 91: Yearbook 1995, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Booklist, September 15, 1998, Bonnie Johnston, review of The Sandglass, p. 199; January 1, 2003, Michele Leber, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 847.
Boston Globe, March 16, 2003, Amanda Heller, review of Heaven's Edge, p. D7.
Boston Review, April, 1995, Neil Gordon, review of Reef, pp. 31-32.
Christian Science Monitor, March 30, 1995, Rubin Merle, review of Reef, p. B2.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 5, 2003, Martin Levin, review of Heaven's Edge, p. D13.
Guardian (London, England), February 26, 1998, Maya Jaggi, review of The Sandglass, p. 14; May 11, 2002, Jaggi, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 9.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2002, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 1553.
Library Journal, September 1, 1998, Janet Ingraham Dwyer, review of The Sandglass, p. 213; February 15, 2003, Caroline Hallsworth, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 168.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 19, 1995, Richard Eder, review of Reef, pp. 3, 11; November 1, 1998, Eder, review of The Sandglass, p. 2; March 10, 2003, Merle Rubin, review of Heaven's Edge, p. E13.
New Internationalist, May, 2002, Peter Whittaker, review of Heaven's Edge, pp. 31-32.
New Statesman and Society, February 28, 1992, D.J. Taylor, review of Monkfish Moon, p. 47; September 2, 1994, p. 38; February 20, 1998, Jason Cowley, review of The Sandglass, p. 49.
New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995, Pico Iyer, review of Reef, pp. 30-31.
New York Times Book Review, August 1, 1993, Suzanne Berne, review of Monkfish Moon, p. 10; January 17, 1999, Jacqueline Carey, review of The Sandglass, p. 17; February 23, 2003, Akash Kapur, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 6.
Paradise Experience, February 13, 1998, review of The Sandglass.
Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1998, review of The Sandglass, p. 71; January 27, 2003, review of Heaven's Edge, pp. 237-238.
Spectator, May 25, 2002, Gabriele Annan, review of Heaven's Edge, pp. 45-46; April 1, 2006, David Crane, "Pathos of the Expatriate" review of The Match, p. 56.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), April 14, 2002, David Robson, review of Heaven's Edge.
Sunday Times (London, England), February 15, 1998, Hugo Barnacle, review of The Sandglass, p. 9; April 14, 2002, Phil Baker, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 43.
Time, September 7, 1998, Pico Iyer, review of The Sandglass, p. 80.
Time International, April 13, 1998, Nisid Hajari, review of The Sandglass, p. 130.
Times (London, England), January 29, 1998, Christina Koning, review of The Sandglass, p. 39; April 24, 2002, Anthea Lawson, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 20.
Times Literary Supplement, June 24, 1994, Aamer Hussein, review of Reef, p. 23; April 12, 2002, Abdulrazak Gurnah, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 10.
Washington Post Book World, June 25, 1995, Guy Amirthanayagam, review of Reef, p. 5.
World Literature Today, April-June, 2003, Peter Bien, review of Heaven's Edge, p. 91; March 1, 2007, Charles Sarvan, review of The Match, p. 61.
Romesh Gunesekera Official Web site,http://www.romeshgunesekera.com (February 4, 2004).