One of the best things about reading a book like Reef is that you are ready for it to be anything. The name doesn’t give away much, you haven’t heard of the writer, nor his style; it isn’t exactly old, but it isn’t new. The unexpectedness is so very refreshing; and I was ready for it after my last, lengthy read. Published in 1994, (and short-listed for the Booker Prize), Romesh Gunesekera’s novel is one of the simplest books I’ve read in the recent past. And yet, one of the most interesting and beguiling of works. The story begins in present day England, at a nondescript gas-station, and quickly bounces back to several decades ago, to 1962, when the narrator was only eleven years old. The narrator is seen to be taken as domestic help at the house of a rich, young man Mister Salgado. We get to know Mister Salgado (through the narrator, Triton) who is a marine biologist, living a comfortable, luxurious life in Sri Lanka. Through the eyes of Triton, we see the life of his master, his lover Nili, and their social circle. Triton, young though he is, is a curious boy, whose observations are often mature for his age – ranging from deeply philosophical, to highly blasphemous! What is important, however, is that we get to see his affluent master and his friends, their thinking and way of life, through a person who is quite removed from it. Triton is a loyal servant to his master, making sure that he does his work at the best of his abilities, thereby endearing him to the reader. Simultaneously, his young master is nurturing and kind, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship. Triton, Mister Salgado, and Nili make an unusual family, that eventually faces problems that threaten to doom their beautiful life.
Gunesekera’s story is not over-flowing with a plot. But what little he has to say, he says it with utmost care and skill. His writing is at once simple and complex, making one go over a sentence, only to come back and mull over its loaded descriptiveness. The narration is taut, helping me finish the book in under two days (and aren’t we all happy when we ravish a book like that?). What was most amazing for me was the realization that I had not read anything by a Sri Lankan author before! And I’m glad I’ve corrected that. Another interesting thing was that in spite of being a male writer, Gunesekera’s observations are quite feminine in its details. This is not a bad thing, of course. The skill of the writer was obvious because he never forgot that the narrator was only eleven. There were times when the narrator did sound a little precocious, but that wouldn’t be entirely untoward, taking into consideration the fact that he had to grow up much quicker than other boys his age.