FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA
In this new release, set in 1960s Colombo, a young boy, Kairo, befriends an older teenager, the Gatsby-esque Jay, characterised by an alluring combination of macho self-confidence, practical proficiency and effortless daring. Kairo’s left-leaning family seem worlds apart from Jay’s life of cossetted wealth, and Kairo is entranced by Jay’s laid-back glamour, not to mention his success with the opposite sex. Jay has a menagerie of animals, including an aviary of captive wild birds, and lives with his decorous mother and intimidating father in the rambling Casa Lihiniya, complete with stables and garages full of cars collected by his Uncle Elvin. To Kairo it is a dream world: “A gilded castle complete with secret passages, captured animals and a mesmerising queen. A whole cosmos far, far more thrilling than the one I’ve been born into.”
As the boys’ friendship intensifies, they and Jay’s Uncle Elvin travel to the family’s wild estate bungalow, Villa Agathon, a journey “as fantastical as a trip to Mars or Moscow“. There the boys run wild, although when the estate-hand’s son is seriously injured in a sort of over-zealous cowboys and Indians game, both Jay and his uncle seem disturbingly unconcerned.
In many ways this coming-of-age tale seems terribly familiar, even if the setting doesn’t. It often feels like nothing actually happens, even when, from time to time, things do happen, sometimes devastatingly. And while the tumescent prose vividly evokes the long, adolescent heat-soaked days, it doesn’t always serve to drive the narrative or particularly propel the reader into turning the page.
However, the language used to describe post-independence Ceylon is often very beautiful, and the descriptions of the boys’ interactions with the natural habitat around them are lushly drawn, and at their most innocent reminiscent of the childhood adventures portrayed by Gerald Durrell.
Both boys’ families are similar in one way, and that is their background of marital discord (or marital schism in the case of Jay’s parents). The repeated allusions to cages, to tamed wild animals and to efforts to protect Jay’s aviary from predators are surely symbolic, whether of the threat posed by the economic, social and political changes taking place, the restraints of domesticity, or Jay’s desperate efforts to impose some kind of (pecking?) order on his unpredictable family and increasingly rivalrous followers.
Romesh Gunesekera was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, growing up there as well as in the Philippines, before becoming a British citizen. The British Council website tells us that: “it is less productive to read Gunesekera’s fiction as a romantic or nostalgic attempt to come to terms with the loss of a homeland, or … to generate fictional forms of imaginative return, than as a [an] unravelling of the ways … the discontinuities of time … collapse spatial and temporal boundaries, creating as T. S. Eliot once put it, ‘the still point of the turning world’.”