Fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 190 pages; 1995.
Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1994, is a rather beautiful and occasionally heartbreaking coming-of-age story set in Sri Lanka before the civil war.
It’s 1962 and 11-year-old Triton, the narrator, is sent away by his father after he accidentally burns the thatch of a schoolyard hut. He goes to live with Mister Salgado, a hunch-backed, quietly spoken marine biologist who is studying coral reefs, and here, under the care of the main help, Joseph, he is taught all manner of household chores.
When Joseph is dismissed from the household for being drunk, Triton is elevated to being the master’s main boy, something that fills him with immense pride. The story largely follows his efforts to fit in, the lessons he learns along the way and how he comes to love cooking and become exceptionally good at it.
Reef is told from the perspective of Triton as an adult looking back on his somewhat unusual childhood. Though he was essentially a young slave, he isn’t bitter about the experience, probably because he is treated well and with respect. Indeed, he feels a great deal of warmth, love and gratitude towards Mister Salgado, who becomes a substitute father figure. It is through the retelling of his childhood experiences that we come to learn how this fondness — and mutual respect — developed.
The key to this is a love affair that Mister Salgado conducts with Nili, a young woman, in the late 1960s. Triton witnesses it at close quarters and does his utmost to ensure Nili is wooed successfully, because he wants his master to be happy.
Before Miss Nili first came to our house on the poya-holiday of April 1969, Mister Salgado only said to me, ‘A lady is coming to tea.’ As if a lady came to tea every week. It had never happened before in his life, or mine, and yet he acted as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Luckily he gave me some warning. He was concerned to make sure there was plenty of time to prepare, even though he acted so nonchalant. I made everything: little coconut cakes — kavum — patties, egg sandwiches, ham sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, even love-cake… I made enough for a horse. It was just as well: she ate like a horse.
Nili eventually moves in with Mister Salgado — they do not marry, bucking society’s conventions at that time — but the relationship doesn’t run smoothly. One day Nili leaves in a fit of fury to go and take up with another man, an American, that Mister Salgado knows.
Mister Salgado is heartbroken and seems to lose interest in most things. But this is merely a metaphor for other forces at work — there’s trouble brewing, politically and socially, and even Mister Salgado’s beloved coral reefs are coming under threat from development and pollution. Eventually he leaves Sri Lanka, for London, taking Triton with him, where he accepts a university posting.
A tropical paradise
This is a prime example of a book that doesn’t have much of a plot but which excels at drawing you in to an unfamiliar world peopled by interesting characters.
There’s an aching kind of quality about it as it follows Triton chasing his dream to be a chef while another man — his boss — loses his dream to create a marine sanctuary.
It’s written from a relatively naive point of view — there’s no sex in it, but food is seen as “the ultimate seducer” (interestingly, Nili eats greedily; Mister Salgado barely eats at all) — which reflects the mindset of a young boy.
But it is the descriptions of a paradise (under threat) — and lots of lovely food — which really makes this book such a delicious read:
When I looked up again I would glimpse the seas between the trees bathed in a mulled gold light. The colour of it, the roar of it, was overwhelming. It was like living inside a conch: the endless pounding.
And it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with Triton, who is diligent, self-motivated, hard working and shows initiative. You want him to succeed because he truly deserves it. And you want him to be happy, too.
I’m not going to spoil the outcome by revealing it here, but let’s just say that Reef is a rewarding read. It’s elegant but also hugely powerful, and I came away from it feeling as though I’d spent some time in (a troubled) paradise. Despite it’s brevity, this is a novel to read slowly, to savour every word and to revel in the beauty of Gunesekera’s languid storytelling.