Fine legs and sticky wickets
by Romesh Gunesekera
Bloomsbury, 308pp, 14.99
THIS is a most engaging novel, written with wit, good humour, intelligence and an agreeable lightness of touch. It's a rites-of-passage story about dislocation, exile and the hero's struggle to find a place for himself in the world.
Sunny Fernando is a Sri Lankan, though he thinks of the island as Ceylon. The son of an alcoholic PR man and a failed pianist, his adolescence is spent in the Philippines in the last years of the Marcos regime. The title comes from a cricket match Sunny organises with a team made up of his father and other men of his age, Sunny's own friends (whom he has had to school in the game), a couple of Australians and a gorgeous girl named Tina, whom he lusts after, but scarcely dares to approach. This is all charming and convincing, but his mostly happy youth ends when he discovers the true circumstances of his mother's death, and is consequently estranged from his father.
So he takes off for England to study engineering, the course picked almost at random. It is 1973, the year of power cuts and the three-day week, a bad year to be a foreign student in London cooped up in a bedsit.
But he makes friends with a fellow Sri Lankan, Ranil, a theology student, who takes him up to the family home in Liverpool for Christmas. Ranil's father Tifus (he should have been christened Titus, but the registrar made a mistake) came to England to study medicine and ended up as an undertaker. He is a fine creation, admirable and comic. On this visit Sunny meets Clara, whom Ranil thinks is his future wife. Clara, however, has different ideas, and ends up with Sunny.
Engineering is no go. Sunny becomes a photographer, starting off by specialising in black-and-white pictures of babies after their own son Mikey is born. He has already renewed contact with a childhood friend, Robbie, whose nature, however, he completely misunderstands until Clara puts him right. From time to time he thinks of making a visit to Sri Lanka, but the island seems so unhappy, with bombs, massacres, civil war. Diligently, he makes a career for himself in England, while never becoming an Englishman. The novel is suffused with nostalgia, with the sense of what is missing in Sunny's life: a centre.
Reconciliation with his father is almost effected when his honorary uncle, Hector, who turns out to be an old mentor of Tifus, pays a visit to Liverpool. But even this is prevented. One begins to wonder if Sunny will ever be truly at ease. "The need to fix the past, to plug the holes, felt intolerable." It seems to him "like everything changes too fast". Maybe there is nothing for him even in London, where he has made his home. But Uncle Hector is wiser: "things are not so easily lost, Sunny, except for money." What you have in your head is what you are.
In the end it is cricket that offers Sunny the reassurance he needs: matches on the Sri Lankans' first tour of England. Somehow this allows him to bring his past and present together, to fix his pasts in a coherent whole. He wants "to photograph hope embedded in love. Or love embedded in hope. Something promising despite the true nature of the world ... Something that could be found, just as it was lost, like life itself ..."
Sunny comes through to affirmation, and this is an affirmative novel. Romesh Gunesekera has that essential gift of the novelist: the ability to make words live, to create life on the page; and he does so with grace and good humour. This is as enjoyable a novel as you are likely to come across this year.