BOOK REVIEW / Faint grumblings heard in Serendip: Reef by Romesh Gunesekera - Granta Books pounds 13.99

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IN HER introduction to Edith Wharton's novel The Reef, Anita Brookner suggests that 'to follow a scruple to its ultimate conclusion is Edith Wharton's whole concern'. Chaos theorists tell us that a butterfly that stamps may begin a sequence that ends with the crashing of a typhoon upon a city. Romesh Gunesekera's Reef manages to align and illustrate these two congruent ideas. The staggering consequences of delicate shifts and subtle notions and the vast disjunction caused in society by small initial breaks in civilisation are each, in this book, embodied in the danger posed by poison and technology to the polyp, the tiny creature that built the coral reefs which form the ramparts of Sri Lanka. It is the microscopic polyp that gives the protective but dead, and sometimes deadly, reef its living skin.

So immanent a metaphor offers risks for a writer. He may start to introduce all sorts of irresistible but artistically ill-mannered facts that distort the story and shorten its breath; or he may get carried away and interpenetrate the whole book with an interruptive cleverness that is distracting and dull. Gunesekera, however, has written a book of the deepest human interest and moral poise. His central character is Triton, kitchen boy to the marine biologist and humane pessimist Mister Salgado, always so addressed in Triton's thoughts even as their friendship loses all sense of separate levels. The book begins before the start of the political horrors in Sri Lanka, before people disappeared perhaps to be washed up months later, scraped out not by rocks but by knives. The many nationalities of the island that was Serendip are still living harmoniously. Singhalese, Tamil, Burgher, Christian, even English - the most recent violence the majority of these are able to recall is that of the Second World War. The story gives the reader so much that is delicious to apprehend that he longs to ignore the faint grumblings to be heard in this Eden.

The quiet rhythms of Ranjan Salgado's bachelor life and Triton's kitchen are so satisfying that the usual readerly appetite for human conflict seems, in this context, a corrupt one. It is enough to see Triton teach himself the recipes favoured by Mister Salgado and his friend Dias: steamed stringhoppers and a series of small eats described with devoted attention. Triton is a character of gentle innocence. Despite his wider experience, Mister Salgado's own prevailing traits are seriousness, application and appreciation.

Their Eve is the slender Miss Nili, for whom Triton cooks a love cake with 10 eggs. Its sweet, golden lightness begins her seduction. 'After tea she said she had to go. I went to get a taxi for her. She stayed with him alone in the house while I went up to the main road. It didn't take long. A black tortoise of a taxi came with a butter top.' So clear are Gunesekera's descriptive metaphors that one needn't translate; there is no learned halt in the reader's pleasure. Sri Lankan taxis look just like that. This unerring ease with other ways of saying things is one of the several beauties of this book's sure and delicate style.

There follows a happy time, a courtship in which Triton is the culinary seducer, his master's circumspect ally. He concocts, despite the humid tropical heat, an elaborately stuffed Christmas turkey and steams a pud, since Miss Nili is a Christian. There are rumours of political fissures around the island, but they are veiled by the douceurs of civilised conversation taking place in the foreground. Miss Nili and Mister Salgado become lovers. Triton's status in the arrangement is dignified and taken for granted. He loves and admires his master and knows his own value. The importance he attaches to carrying out his domestic tasks suggests his own almost scholarly genius for making life good.

For a time the idyll holds, although one can sense the sweet air leaking out of the story. Mister Salgado neglects his work. His new frivolity becomes more burdensome to him than work. The suggestion of doom suffuses the incidental graces of the writing. When the break comes in the organic filigree of Triton's and Mister Salgado's life together, it is ruinous but not terminal. In being thus merciful with his tactfully realised characters, Gunesekera brings his book to its balanced, sad, enlightened conclusion, which is also, for Triton, a beginning. Very few contemporary novels combine at so high but natural a pitch qualities of epic strength and luminous intimacy.

(Photograph omitted)