Romesh Gunesekera’s stories of Sri Lanka at a crossroads

1381230917470Even taking into account that hundreds of thousands of books are published each year it is always surprising to come across one so enjoyable that you wonder why it is that you haven’t read any of the author’s work before. This was recently the situation with Romesh Gunesekera whose second book, Reef, published in 1994, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and whose other work has been consistently praised by critics.

His latest offering, Noontide Toll, is set shortly after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. While the fighting is over the tensions are still simmering, and the impact of the carnage is everywhere, both on the landscape and in the people. Central to Noontide Toll is Vasantha who, after retiring, bought himself a van and is enjoying the freedom of his life driving people around the region. People like a former aid worker seeking justice for an assault by a soldier; a pregnant woman going to see the new house her husband wants to buy; a middle-aged man returning after decades in Britain, to the family home with his teenage son; a senior military officer visiting one of his men, disabled in the fighting. It is through these seemingly simple vignettes – seen through the eyes of Vasantha, the van man – that Gunesekera builds his overview of a modern Sri Lanka at the crossroads.

Most of the stories are both powerful and subtle, like Scrap where the government is showing a local “mafia troupe” of Chinese businessmen the acres of war scrap, bicycles, mangled buses trucks and cars, trying to interest them in buying it to recycle. However, Vasantha, a pocket philosopher, can stray into a sentimentality which makes the collection a little uneven. But that’s nitpicking. Overall, Noontide Toll is a wonderful read. Gunesejera is a beautiful writer. There is a sensual quality to his descriptions of even the most mundane exchanges and observations and he is incredibly skillful at creating an understated comic tone. Noontide Toll was a truly pleasurable read.

Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera is published by Granta

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