BOOK REVIEW / Stemed passions with a reef lecture: REEF - Romesh Gunesekera: Granta, pounds 13.99

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LITERATURE has been good to servants, perhaps because they offer a dose of upstairs-downstairs unease and can sneak around the house sniggering at the guests. But the shy cook who narrates Romesh Gunesekera's serendipitous first novel is not there to provide shortcuts to a satirical reflex - on the contrary, he is zealous, protective and loyal.

He finds a kind of mastery in servility, and prefers the cultivated order of his privileged household ('I felt safer than I had ever felt before in my life') to the uncertain simmerings of modern politics. To him, the house is a kind of paradise, as time-honoured and vulnerable as the coral out in the bay. Like all paradises, it is about to get lost.

The story begins at a petrol station in England on a chill winter night, and swiftly dissolves in a flashback embracing bay windows, a sunny terrace with jasmine, warm sand and diving for pearls in a turquoise sea. An 11-year-old boy is delivered into the household of Ranjan Salgado, an expert on oceans and eager student of the coral barrier that protects the beaches on the southern tip of Sri Lanka (formerly Serendip).

The boy's life sways before us like some underwater frond. Like coral, which grows at the speed of fingernails, the child moves modestly through obedient toil, unrewarded love and endless ardent reading in a beguiling drift towards independence.

First, though, while Salgado gives his Reef Lectures to anyone who'll listen, the boy turns into a gifted cook. This has the sumptuous side-effect of filling the novel with enchanting flavours: crab, lime and coconut with chillies and cashew nuts, wood-apple cream, and a superlative egg flip: 'high- grown coffee, cocoa, raw egg, vanilla and brandy whisked with hot milk and butter and stirred with a cinnamon stick'.

But the most important ingredient is water. There is water, water everywhere: Reef is almost certainly the wettest novel of the year - you have to handle it with care so as not to spill a single word. It is almost a poem, this sequence of watery images and emblems artfully sifted and arranged.

Just as the sea washes over the reef, eroding and depositing coral for the fish to feed on, so there are tides in the affairs of men and women. When the cook steps outside it is to contemplate 'the exact ebb and flow of the whole cluster of galaxies'. When he devises perfect food it is his way of navigating 'every possible channel' into the mind of the dinner guest.

After a while the life of the reef blurs with the life of the house. People hover and dart over the dinner table like brilliant fish, nibbling and nuzzling and trying to avoid being buffeted by the current, or at least by current affairs. The house swarms with guests who 'invade in shoals', and the violence that engulfs Sri Lanka crashes in like a stormy sea, in 'wave after wave'. The ocean is like fate, the agent both of renewal and decay. It is 'the source of our life, and death'.

The imagery is carefully plotted and exact: in the course of the book the hero will have to take a deep breath, swim away from the warm waters above the reef and push out on his own towards the 'abyss'. Meanwhile, the sea breathes in and out on almost every page.

The guests make a big thing at Christmas of toasting the age of Aquarius. There is a sharp discussion of Sri Lanka's inland reservoirs, which, like great houses (nature tamed and made courteous) are 'a sea made safe by human imagination'. And most obvious of all, the cook's name is Triton - the son of Aphrodite and Poseidon, the legendary fish with a human head whose voice you can hear in sea shells. This burden exposes the slightly static nature of the novel: at low tide we can see the bare thematic bones poking above the clear ripples of the story.

An authentic spice of immediacy, though, burns through the persistent stab of impossible longing Triton feels for the lady of the house, Nili. She is described with intense fervour; leaning over at dinner, her elbow brushes the servant's sarong while he stares, out of breath and speechless, at her feminine ears. 'They were larger than I expected. Each with two symmetrical wrinkles where they joined her neck and the outer edges curled in like the edge of a puppadum when it hits hot oil. My instinct was to press the ears back with my hands and keep the entrances to her soul open like the lips of a glazed pink conch.'

The book quivers with these startling physical shocks, which have an exhilarating buoyancy of their own. Nili is by far the brightest fish on the reef; she gleams in the sunlight. But these moments also echo the unrequitable nostalgia the book expresses for remote paradises. Triton's distraught affection drops a faint cry of agonised yearning into the gulfs of class, race and money, and this blends perfectly with the novel's delicate glance at Oriental and Western habits.

Salgado favours Western food ('courses'), and when Triton has been using his fingers to roll carefully prepared fish balls in hot oil, has the cheek to ask for a sandwich. In an awful reverse, Nili gives Triton a Christmas present, a tender gesture that leaves his heart bursting. But inside the wrapping is a book: A Hundred Recipes from around the World, a patronising double insult to his culinary and national pride. Even worse, there's a 100-

rupee note - a triple blow.

Triton puts a brave face on things, but Reef still feels like a swansong. The coral is dying, the land is eroded and the old order is crumbling. Modern history swirls in: 'I felt the sea getting closer, each wave just a grain of sand closer to washing the life out of us.'

In a small way, Triton's servility is a metaphor for the East's relations to the colonial West. But the new life of the island is an ugly cocktail of bad politics and violence: 'Down on the beach, the bodies of men and boys who had disappeared from their homes, who had been slaughtered and thrown in the sea, were washed in by the tide. Every morning they reappeared by the dozen: bloated and disfigured, rolling in the surf. The fishermen in the villages became undertakers . . .'

It is all beautifully orchestrated. Anyone wishing to carp might point out that the book's subtleties give us too obvious a nudge, that it wears its art on its sleeve. Reef does not really arrive at mournful conclusions; it takes them as read. Nor do the intrusions of the world always detonate in the text. Newspaper headlines from far away - 'Belfast, Phnom Penh, Amman, places I had never heard of before' - are recited in a dutiful tone that is almost off-the-peg.

But these are mere cavils. Gunesekera has swum into the melancholy long withdrawing roar with a snorkel and a pair of goggles, and created a world of strange, slow-motion underwater intensity. Put your ear to the page, and you can almost hear the ocean whisper.