Books: Exit from Arcadia

The Sandglass by Romesh Gunesekera Granta, pounds 9.99; Shena Mackay savours the spirit of a Sri Lankan saga

Although Romesh Gunesekera's third novel is set in the present day, it takes us back to the Ceylon of half a century ago when an ageing Empire was beginning to acknowledge its own mortality. In a circular narrative which begins and ends in Colombo, The Sandglass tells the story of Esra Vatunas and Jason Ducal, bitter rivals in creating their own business empires in the wake of the British departure from Ceylon in 1948, and reveals the lasting effects of their feud on their descendants. The lives of the Vatunas and Ducal families have been entwined since Jason Ducal purchased a house misnamed Arcadia, which stood at the centre of the Vatunas estate, overlooked by the Vatunas mansion, Bellevue.

The Sandglass is essentially a sins-of-the-fathers saga with all the ingredients of the genre: money, land, bad seed, forbidden love. It deals with its theme in a subtle and elliptical way, interweaving reminiscences and surmise with fragments of journals. At its centre, drawing the tangled threads of the tale together, is Chip, one of those shadowy narrators of whom we needs to know little.

Chip was born in Sri Lanka, lives in London and has a job in computers which requires him to travel abroad. When the story opens, he is searching for his friend, the entrepreneurial Prins Ducal, in Colombo, a dangerous city stalked by Tamil Tigers.

Prins has disappeared or perhaps "been disappeared" by the police or another agency on behalf of somebody disturbed by his probing into his father's death in a shooting many years ago. The last time Chip and Prins had met was at the funeral in London of Prins's mother and Chip's erstwhile landlady, Pearl Ducal.

On his arrival in London in 1975, Chip had rented a room from Pearl Ducal, the widow of Jason. Pearl, an Anglophile, had exchanged Arcadia for Acacia Avenue, after Jason's death. The lonely young man and older woman formed a friendship which continued after Chip moved out. He spends many hours listening to Pearl's stories, and when she dies he determines, with Prins, to fill in the gaps.

For example, was Jason really killed by an accidental bullet or was he murdered? Were the Vatunases behind it? Did Pearl have an affair with Tivoli Vatunas, the son of the desposite Esra? Besides Prins, Pearl had a daughter whose first romance she thwarted and who died soon after giving birth to a baby girl. Pearl also had a second son who became increasingly withdrawn until he slipped away in a neatly ordered suicide: not a good track record for a mother. Why had she waited for such a long time before sending for her children from Sri Lanka? Pearl's secret papers yield clues, but Chip's quest for Prins seems doomed to failure.

With its historical perspective and larger cast, The Sandglass is more ambitious than Gunesekera's previous novel, the delicately-wrought Reef, which was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker prize. While neither the vulgar, dynastic Esra nor the reclusive Tivoli, nor the romantic-turned-obsessive Jason inspire sympathy, the novel's most entertaining sections concern the dirty-tricks campaign of the Vatunas and Ducal bids to take over a distillery and develop the downmarket local spirit, arrack, into a fashionable drink.

Gunesekera has an acute ear for the fruity turns of phrase of golf-playing businessmen. Elsewhere, Chip's alienation is encapsulated in the view of gridlocked modern Colombo from his hotel: "The whole cadaverous city seemed to rise on a tide of rubble."

There are passages of lyrical beauty in descriptions of the Sri Lankan landscape and London in blossom, but occasionally the fine prose delivers a jarring infelicity such as "she felt a knot tighten in her degaussed womb." Before the narrative turns full circle, Pearl's granddaughter has a baby, the symbolically named Dawn, in whose mixed Sri Lankan and British ancestry reside Chip's hopes for a new generation untainted by the past.

Elegaic, freighted with melancholy, The Sandglass paints a vivid portrait of a society in that recent past and in a frightening present, and leaves one wondering how this talented writer will deploy his imagination and his rich material in the future.

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