Author keeps cool, and no mistake

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BORING? Uninspired? A Mogadon list? None of these criticisms of the shortlist for the Booker Prize, the winner of which will be announced on Tuesday, seems valid to Romesh Gunesekera.

The author of Reef, one of the six shortlisted novels, shrugs off all the controversy: 'I haven't really read all the other books, so I can't say . . .' For him, anything that gets his book into the shops and under the nose of the public is a good thing: 'Once they've opened the book and read two sentences, what I have done takes over. They like it or they don't. But it's my work, and I have had my chance to get through to the reader.'

What Gunesekera, a 40- year-old Sri Lankan-British writer, has done in Reef is to create the lyrical story of a Sri Lankan boy, Triton, who is sent to live with the mysterious Mister Salgado and becomes his servant and friend.

As cook of the household, Triton's power-base is the kitchen, his weapons the sensuous smells and tastes of Sri Lanka. Cooking, coral polyps and (the fashionable) chaos theory are the reckless elements of this carefully crafted story.

There isn't much recklessness about Romesh Gunesekera himself. He seems unusually cool and calm for someone whose first novel has made it to the Booker shortlist. He could be forgiven for getting a little excited.

His childhood was spent in Sri Lanka, in an educated, English-speaking, middle-class world that still lived in the hangover of British colonial values and attitudes. Later he moved with his family to the Philippines, where his father worked for the Asian Development Bank. There, the strongest influences were American.

So when he was sent to school in England, to do his A- levels, it was a double culture- shock - but one that Gunesekera seems to have managed with his characteristic cool. 'Yes, it was very strange at first, but I got used to it.'

After taking a degree in English and philosophy at Liverpool, he set out to make himself into a writer, working at odd jobs, because, he says, 'I thought that was what writers did. I was very influenced by American writers, Kerouac and the Beat Generation, and later ones too. I thought that was how you had to behave.' He laughs. 'I was wrong, of course.'

Next he tried without success to get a job in publishing: 'because I thought that was how you got to be a writer. Wrong again . . .'

He produced poems and short stories, some of which were published in periodicals or read on the radio: 'I thought you had to start with stories and work up to longer books. My third mistake.'

Gunesekera has been settled in England for 20 years. Now working full-time for the British Council, he lives with his wife, Helen, and two children in Crouch End, north London. His parents and a sister also live in England now, but he goes back to Sri Lanka often: the twin cultures that fuel his life seem woven into one strong strand. If there is a conflict, this nicest and most poised of writers never allows it to show.

Now he finds himself on a Booker shortlist that has provoked even more bad-tempered carping than usual. In fact, this year's list is no more 'boring' than others, but it does fall in with a formula that has been well established for at least 10 years. British culture (whatever that is) continually reacts away from its centre, yearning out towards its Celtic edges, its post- colonial heritage, other worlds in general.

This year is no exception: George Mackay Brown (Beside The Ocean of Time) takes us to an imaginary island in the Orkneys; James Kelman (How Late It Was, How Late) to his familiar Scottish badlands. Abdulrazak Gurnah (Paradise) explores a world as exotic as Gunesekera's. Jill Paton Walsh, as a woman, counts as part of a minority (in Booker terms); in The Folding Star, Alan Hollinghurst's homosexual world is a distant continent to many men, and all women.

These are fine books, all steeped in the glamour of otherness. But fashion has done an abrupt somersault - this formula, once radical, suddenly seems jaded.

It would be ridiculous to let this spoil our enjoyment of any of these very different books. But there's a prize to be won on Tuesday and the panel of judges has a hard task. Backing a Booker winner is a risky business and I am not really a gambling woman, but I think Gunesekera's my choice.

(Photograph omitted)