Monday, 30 March 2020

Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

It’s 1960. In post-colonial Ceylon, Mrs Bandaranaika, just been elected Prime Minister, making her the world’s first non-hereditary female head of government. Land reforms are coming – reforms that worry the landowning gentry as much as they disappoint others. And by making Sinhal the country’s official language and ignoring Tamil, the foundations are being laid for the sectarian divisions that will later tear the country apart.

But for twelve year old Kairo, out of school and at a loose end, the most exciting thing is the sudden appearance of the charismatic and daring Jay. Jay is a strange mixture of kindness and casual cruelty. His fondness for wild birds does not stop him catching and caging them. Likewise, he picks up friends, binds them to him, only to drop them with a casual disregard when they no longer fit his purposes.

Quite early on, I caught echoes of the Great Gatsby. It’s there in the names – Jay and Kairo – and in the trope of the new neighbour who dazzles with his comparative wealth and a recklessness that seems to court disaster. And it’s there in certain aspects of the unfolding plot too.

The way the story of the two boys interweaves with the politics of newly independent nation – glimpsed and half understood via adult arguments – gives the book the feel of an extended metaphor for post-colonial politics. As Kairo observes about when Jay moved his birds into a larger aviary:

“The whole thing was rocking me with contradictory emotions ... I could see this was not freedom for the birds; merely the exchange of one cage for a bigger one. The fundamental nature of their lives had not changed.”

Unlike, say, Deepa Anappara's Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,  the story, though told from Kairo’s point of view, is not seen through the eyes of a twelve year old. The voice is that of adult looking back on his life as he hovered on the brink of adolescence. The text is laced with the sadness of foreknowledge, with knowing how it will all end.

In many ways it almost feels as if the book could have been written in the 1960s. One thing that made me slightly uneasy were the casual references to things like ‘warpaint’, ‘teepees’ ‘braves’ and ‘tomahawks’ – commonplaces of many boys’ imaginary games of the period (and since) but which, used carelessly, can be offensive to indigenous people. It’s the familiar dilemma of balancing period accuracy of language with modern-day understanding of racist tropes. Yet it is clear that the choice to retain this language is not something Gunesekera took lightly. His acknowledgements include thanks given to “the Banff centre in the lands of Treaty 7 territory where the past, present and future generations of Stoney Nakoda, Blackfoot, and Tauut’ina Nations and acknowledged and honoured.”

Like Priti Taneja's We That Are Young, Suncatcher is a novel that takes the framework of a English-language classic and transforms it into the means to interrogate the state of a South Asian nation.

Longlisted for the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: RK Narayan Swami and Friends, Priti Taneja We That Are Young

Avoid If You Dislike: stories of hunting and caged animals

Perfect Accompaniment: chocolate milkshake and a wild bike ride

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Coming of Age story

Buy This Book Here

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