Romesh Gunasekera is not a prolific novelist – half a dozen in a quarter of a century. He was born in 1954 in Sri Lanka, when it was still Ceylon, and though he has long lived in London it is Ceylon that fires his imagination and occupies his memory. There is an element of autobiographical fiction in Suncatcher, though the dates don’t quite fit in this story of a schoolboy friendship which ended abruptly and painfully.
His narrator, Kairo, is, I guess, about 14 or 15, and the novel is set in 1964, a time of political unrest. The elite are English-speakers. Kairo’s father, a civil servant and Trotskyite, an idle and often melancholy man with a fondness for placing bets on horseracing in England, is chivvied by his wife to improve his knowledge of Sinhala because fluency in it is going to be made compulsory for Government employees. Kairo is a solitary, rather dreamy boy, whose life is transformed by meeting Jay, the son of rich and ill-suited parents. Jay has star quality and passionate enthusiasm for wildlife, especially birds. Kairo is recruited to help him build an aviary in his garden. Jay extends his horizons. It is not quite a friendship of equals. Not only is Jay’s family much richer – and disapproved of by Kairo’s father for political reasons – but he is the sun around whom Kairo’s life soon revolves. At the same time Kairo is puzzled and pained by Jay’s dislike of his indolent father and glamorous mother, whose response to an unhappy marriage is to take to drink. On the other hand, Jay admires his rich uncle (regarded by Kairo’s father as an exploiter), and a weekend which the boys spend on his country estate, fishing and shooting, is one of the highlights of the novel, beautifully created or perhaps remembered.
The intensity and precariousness of Kairo’s feeling for Jay is beautifully realised, all the more so because his devotion to this life-enhancer is not entirely uncritical. He is jealous when Jay makes other friends – a girl and a Tamil boy called Channa – and ashamed of his jealousy. He is torn too by divided loyalties, his affection for his ineffectual father with his political consciousness at odds with the excitement of his immersion in Jay’s world. At the same time Gunesekera allows the reader to see what his narrator is blind to: that Jay, though he also develops an enthusiasm for cars and teaches Kairo to drive, has something of the Peter Pan about him. He is a golden boy who is also a rebel without a cause. There is something of the contemporary angry rebel, James Dean, about him and the climax of the novel will echo a scene from Dean’s best-known film.
Still, it’s an enchanting novel in which the author skilfully marries his public theme of political uncertainty and imminent, perhaps alarming, change with the passions of adolescence, and also its langour. Though the setting is completely different, the mood of certain passages in the novel and the sense of the brevity of youth call to mind the early chapters of Brideshead Revisited. That’s to say, the author has created, or more exactly re-created, a world in which you are happy to linger, all the more so because you cannot escape an awareness of its fragility. Kairo himself senses this, when he sees in Jay’s face “the tribulations of adolescence, forced growth, a sharpened tongue, a future of faults.” “A sense of foreboding,” he thinks, “is hard for a young boy to separate from terror, but I felt everything was going wrong and there was nothing I could do to stop the crash.”
If the novel had me recalling Brideshead, there are also echoes of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, the title sometimes rendered into English as The Lost Domain. The setting could scarcely be more different, likewise the plot. But there is the same mood, the same sense of permanence which nevertheless you know to be misleading, the same magical evocation of a world where it seems that everything should remain as it is, while you know, sadly, that it can’t and won’t.
Suncatcher, by Romesh Gunesekera, Bloomsbury, 312pp, £16.99