Irish Times

Fiction of the Week: Unravelling the mysteries 

When young Ceylonese girl, raised in isolation on Father Brown mysteries, marries Jason, who has wooed her with flowers, poetry and talk about "the need for beauty", it seems she is destined for a life of romance. Reality proves far harsher for Pearl in Romesh Gunesekera's The Sandglass. Once they are wed, the lyricism ceases as Jason applies himself to the business of "finding something that would launch their lives into a richer orbit". 
    Jason has no means; his wife docs. thanks to her doctor father. but Jason wants his own money. In order to achieve his ambitions, he goes to work for a British tea firm. It  is seen as a personal coup. "No Ceylonese had ever penetrated this last bastion of British colonial conservatism. not at the level he did." 
    This is an outstanding novel.Gunesekera is examining a culture at the mercy of colonialism as well as its own inner rot. But he is also, and most powerfully, concerned with the story of two rival families. Nothing could be more traditional than the way in which the narrative develops, following three' generations through various vicissitudes and sorrows. It is a well-used device, the family saga complete with a store of complex secrets. 
    Chip, the narrator, has come to know Pearl in her old age. She becomes his life mentor and also his guide through her family's tragic history. Her tragedies are countered by her determination to feed everyone fattening food, her humour, and her loyalty to the traditions of her native country. She even encourages her precise,. methodical, Westernised daughter to wear a sari to her office, assuring her that her colleagues will "love it.     
    When Pearl's son Prins arrives in London for her funeral the various hidden truths emerge. Chips is more than narrator: he is a witness, and, indeed, seems to' exist, only in relation to the Ducal clan. Once this is accepted, however, the reader becomes engrossed in a humane and gentle tale graced by the simple beauty and ease of Gunesekera's prose. There is no strained lyricism; Gunesekera's images are both poetic and natural. 
    Pearl's early married life is dominated by Jason's decision to buy a grand house, Arcadia, which lies at the centre of the vast estate owned by the Vatunas family. Despite the beauty of the surroundings, Pearl and her husband become more estranged. When he dies suddenly in bizarre circumstances, Pearl leaves her country and sets off alone for London with her three children. 
    Through skilful! characterisation Gunesekera creates a brave, ordinary woman who is appealing and believable without being saintly or heroic. As she withdraws into the world of her flat, sustained by television and food, she forgets nothing - "the space around her was teeming with words; her whole life was woven with them" - yet she never becomes vengeful. "For her there was no map. All the places belonged either to the present or the past. The future was a fantasy. In her yellow room in Almeida Avenue she would rather watch a horror movie, at any time of the day or night, than think about the future." 
    One of the novel's achievements is Gunesekera's ability to balance major characters with minor ones without falling into caricature. The complex time-scales also work well. 
    Chip's commitment to his story of tangled lives is never in doubt. His absolute need for these people and for their mysteries becomes clear without compromise either to him or to the novel itself. It is Chip who pieces together the story, which includes several set-pieces such as Jason's decision to consult Srijan, a self-proclaimed holy man, about the future of his business. Srijan asks him what he was about to do before he paid this visit. Jason replies, with unaccustomed spontaneity, that he had been going to walk on the sands and listen to the ocean. "So do it," says Srijan. Jason arrives at the beach and where before he has always found darkness, "shadows without light, and the roar of an invisible sea", this time the glow of campfires disturbs his meditations. 
    Peace is denied Jason, and it seems that Gunesekera is commenting on the force of change. The female characters are stronger than the men, who invariably fail, whereas the women tend to survive. By the close of the novel the remote Prins has not only discovered his love of his mother, albeit not entirely convincingly, but also he realises the folly of trying to unravel every secret. Most significantly, he accepts that he can not rebuild the world that has been destroyed forever. 
    Neither sentimental nor melodramatic, The Sandglass is extraordinary in that it is an undeniably traditional, even conventional, novel which is sustained by its melancholic truths. Each character is in search of his or her version of a lost paradise. For Sri Lanka, the future appears to promise only political corruption and commercial exploitation, with a censored version of reality for the tourists. Yet Gunesekera never hectors. 
    Shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize with his first, novel Reef, Gunesekera - in fact he almost won, but was beaten by James Kelman's How Late it Was, How Late - also impressed with his debut collection of short stories, Monkfish Moon (1992). Born in Sri Lanka and raised there and in the Philippines, he now lives in London. Few novels are more obviously - and deservedly - destined for major success. As complex and it is simple, The Sandglass is a strong Booker contender and may well be the winner. 

Eileen Battersby

14 March 1998


A tear-shaped homeland 

MY EVERY breath seemed imbued with petrol. I wanted to close my eyes and imagine a warm sea and our salt in the air. I did not know what I was doing in there." So thinks the protagonist in the prologue to Romesh Gunesekera's last novel, Reef (1994), when in an English petrol station he comes across a fellow Sri Lankan (Tamil, unlike himself). These poignant sentences could form a motto for all Gunesekera's fiction from the subtle, resonant short stories of Monkfish Moon (1992) to the present novel, The Sandglass, his most ambitious book. For all the delicacy of his art, for all his preference for ambiguous inference over overt judgement, throughout his work one emotional truth plainly reverberates: Sri Lanka compels the leaving of it. Not for nothing is it "tear-shaped"; fecund and beautiful, it is the putative site of the Garden of Eden, of the paradisiacal Atlantis, from which humanity was exiled. Even those who stay there are forced, by the uncertainties and cruelties of its unflagging civil war, to live in a kind of exile. With its tainted, blood-stained past, stretching far back beyond the British occupation, and its unpredictable future, it would seem unable, in any satisfying sense, to provide a home for its inhabitants.

The attempt to establish a home is at the heart of The Sandglass, and in particular the doomed attempts of two neighbouring but contrasting families, the Ducals and the Vatunases. Jason Ducal, self-driven, self- made, profiting by the withdrawal of the British from "Ceylon", is able, in 1948, to buy a house in a district of Colombo "where no Ducal before him had ever dreamed of owning one". Jason sees his house as a ship, which in form it resembles, from the "bridge" of which he can survey his own spectacular progress. Ironically its name, bestowed by the Englishman who built it, is Arcadia, and it is tear-shaped like the country itself. Next door lies the Vatunas family's property, "the result of a deep and intense relationship between the sleeping earth and the ambitions of a line of modern dynasts. And for the Vatunases, from the first to the last, land defined everything: the shape of their lives, the shape of their bodies and their heads and the shape of their dreams."

The history of the Ducal and Vatunas families is pieced together - with perhaps some side-glances at William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom - by an outsider, one distant in time and space if not in emotional concern from the places and events. Chip, the novel's narrator ("I had left Sri Lanka some years before but still had no place of my own)", comes in 1975 to lodge with Pearl, Jason's widow, now resident with her family in London. Pearl's name, of course, connotes, without undue strain, Sri Lanka itself, famous for its pearls, and resembling one in both size and loveliness. After a brief introduction telling us how haunted he still is by the Ducal history ("with the scheming Vatunases ... forever coiled round them"), Chip takes us take us back to February 1993, when Prins, Pearl's only surviving child and once good friend to Chip, returns from Colombo for his mother's funeral. For two days (their progress beautifully and intimately evoked) Prins and Chip try to talk into some coherence the difficult, fragmented past. Prins left the London of his exile not just for Colombo but for a relationship with a Vatunas daughter, Lola, but he has found no resting place, either externally or internally. In particular he has become obsessed by the nature of his father's death, which may or may not have been the accident it has been conveniently labelled. Jason, for whom, as for his son later, entrepreneurial activity and a hunger for spiritual adventure are inextricably intertwined, left behind notebooks in which he recorded his thoughts. And one of his last was: "The imagination is our most molested flower, so easily crippled in a heartless paradise."

Prins' story is - one assumes - to parallel his father's. When Chip, a globe-trotting businessman, revisits Sri Lanka, he cannot find Prins. No-one knows where he is, or what has happened, this sudden descent of obscurity only too characteristic of this "heartless paradise". Yet away from it the fate of Sri Lankans may be no kinder. There is nothing better in this novel than the account of Prins' brother, Ravi's quiet tragic life in England, culminating in a suicide so undramatic it scarce deserves the name. "He not only tried not to make any impression in his daily life, but he tried to undo all past impressions ... He had been so meticulous over his exit that after he passed away not even a single letter arrived for him to remind anyone of his curtailed life."

Reef, one of the outstanding novels of our decade, succeeds to a considerable degree because of the voice to its narrator, the houseboy Triton who works for the gifted but lazy oceanologist whom he follows into exile. For much of his narrative he is unaware of the metaphoric nature of the situations he describes. Chip in The Sandglass is, by contrast, only too aware, and moreover anxious to underscore. Closer to his creator than Triton, he is far less successful as an autonomous character, especially when juxtaposed with the quite brilliantly realised Prins. Now and again, too, I wondered if the oblique method of presentation doesn't impair our emotional response to events and relationships. Yet this is also part of the novel's point: only the oblique is possible for these confused heirs to a former imperial possession. The Sandglass is a novel of true distinction, the work of a profoundly honest mind, one utterly unconcerned with the authorial self, intent instead on the lot of fellow humans and its meaning. He wants, in the words of the beautiful close to his novel, "to free the future from the shadows of the past", to be spun "forward from this hurt earth to a somehow better world".


17 September 2014




This fine novel is a study of death and the effects of loss. The basic essentials of human beings -all our dreams and weaknesses - are rarely portrayed with such easy finesse. Although this is an elegant novel, the author's style does not cloud his subject, and the unfolding of the plot is one of the book's strongest elements. The layered story envelops the characters with a natural ease. This is an enticing novel, which invites and repays close concentration. Gunesekara is an assured author, whose confidence in his material is well founded.

Chris Wood

Feb 20, 1999

India Today

An immigrant looks back

In a contemplative moment late in Romesh Gunesekera's second novel The Sandglass, his unnamed narrator thinks that composers who have attempted to capture the "grandeur of heaven" by heaping "scales upon scales" have got it all wrong; what they really need to do is "imagine a stilled heart and the peace that can only come from the absence of conflict, of abrasion, of friction, of sound itself".

Heaven must be imagined as "silence", as "the stillness of the centre, the eye of a storm whirling across the universe". This search for the still centre of the storm that rages all around might be an apt description of Gunesekera's novelistic method too, as demonstrated both by this and his splendid first novel, Reef, which was shortlisted for the Booker.

In both cases, Gunesekera's canvas seems deceptively narrow and his brush-strokes untroubled, but each of his characters turn out to be in retreat from the personal or public furies that haunt them. And playing at the edges of the frame are the fires that have ravaged independent Sri Lanka: religious fundamentalism, ethnic strife, the culture of violence which has altered what one character calls the "precious quaint kultur" of the island.

Gunesekera does not lapse into sentimentalityThe Sandglass, to be released early next year, tells the story of two families whose lives are interlinked by the changing fortunes of post-colonial Sri Lanka. The Vatunases have known money and power longer than the Ducals, but Jason Ducal is the new breed of manager who first works for, and then takes over, the old colonial trading firms.

The seeds of family tragedy are sown once he buys property formerly owned by the Vatunases, thus setting up a cycle of competition and violence between him and Esra Vatunase, who resents his presence and his success.

Their story, and those of some of their descendants, does not all unravel at home. The novel is in fact set in a day and night in London where the narrator, a Sri Lankan immigrant, lives. Along with a number of other Sri Lankans, he lives a life suffused with longing and nostalgia for the country they have left behind. The stories they tell each other inevitably lead home, and the lives they speak of describe the complicated fabric of Sri Lankan history.

While a few of Gunesekera's characters are larger than life figures, The Sandglass is very often about those who " leave hardly a trace behind", except in the memories of those who survive them. As in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, story-telling and memories become specially urgent for diasporic sub-continentals who are all tied to people and the past via the umbilical cord of personal narrative. Both novels feature male narrators who are in crucial ways understudies to older, more restless men, which means that the narrative is often at one remove from the events it features.

In The Sandglass, this distance leads to a meditative, richly textured prose that explores the narrator's "sense of accelerating loss for what is behind us - the lost opportunities, the unregainable past - and fear for what lies ahead". For the narrator, life in Britain is orderly and regular, ever in the present. Ironically, both the past and the anxious future are played out on a distant island, once called home.

The Sandglass, his second novel, establishes Gunesekera's technical competence and creative vitality. His prose is chiselled and precise enough to register powerful emotion without lapsing into sentimentality. He writes movingly of human vulnerability and loss and of the misfortunes and catastrophes that overwhelm individuals and nations.

He is free of the self-conscious insistence (made popular by our magical realists) that the realities of the subcontinent are so unique that they demand exaggerations of novelistic form and character. Gunesekera's vision is more spare and economical, his canvas less cluttered, but his achievement is wide-ranging, as is his quiet, questing talent.

by Suvir Kaul

Dec 22, 1997 

India Today  


New York Times

Review of The Sandglass

Family Feud

For a decade and a half, Sri Lanka has been the scene of violent confrontations between its Sinhalese-controlled Government and armed separatists fighting on behalf of its Tamil minority. By 1991, Amnesty International had reported thousands of disappearances, largely the result of state terrorism. Atrocities have been committed on both sides: torture, suicide bombings, executions, the massacre of whole villages. In 1993, the culminating year of Romesh Gunesekera's ambitious second novel, ''The Sandglass,'' both the Sri Lankan President and the leader of the opposition party were assassinated.

The book concerns a feud between two Sri Lankan families, the Ducals and the Vatunases. It is hard not to assume that this rivalry is inspired, to some degree, by the division in the country, especially since its cause is geographic. The house bought by Jason Ducal in the capital city of Colombo was once part of the original Vatunas estate, and rich old Esra Vatunas thinks it still should be.

The novel takes place more in the business than in the political realm, but the oblique, insistent references to the war make apparently ordinary questions fraught: How do you reconcile the virtues of ambition and drive with the dubious maneuverings required by a corrupted world? Or, more generally, how can you continue to live, love and bear children, given the horrors you see all around you?

Jason Ducal, who has a natural gift for business, works constantly if unreflectingly and is good at the sort of ego-stroking that insures advancement. When the British-owned tea company he works for is nationalized in 1948, Jason is in the perfect position to benefit. In 1956, after consolidating his power in the company, he decides to engineer the purchase of a local distillery -- a stroke of genius, as it later turns out -- but before his plan can be put into action he is found dead, a bullet in his brain. The official verdict is accidental death, but Esra Vatunas immediately buys up the distillery himself.

This episode is the only part of the book's extremely complicated plot that has the heft of an expected moral choice. The reader assumes that Prins, Jason's son, will find out what really happened and will deal with it in some fashion that reveals certain truths about himself and his father -- a sort of ''All the King's Men'' in an even hotter place. At least Prins says that's what he's going to do. But that is not at all what occurs.

Gunesekera's novel has a frame: Chip, the expatriate Sri Lankan narrator, muses about what could have happened to his now-vanished friend Prins. Inside that frame is a mat with a variety of circles and squares cut into it, the mat being the day in 1993 that Prins comes back to London to attend his mother's funeral and talks to Chip. The chapters have titles like ''Morning,'' ''Ten O'clock,'' ''Late Morning'' and so forth. Yet each of these chapters contains not a single scene but a horde of them, working back and forth in time and place, suggesting the splinters into which Sri Lankan life has shattered.

Part of the singularity of ''The Sandglass'' is the way it expresses this splintering process through the virtually equal (but necessarily scant) attention given to the many secondary characters, which include four generations of Ducals and Vatunases, plus friends, business associates and one mad monk (apparently a staple of Sri Lankan political life). Pearl, Prins's mother, who left Colombo for London after Jason's death, spends her time watching old movies on television with Chip. She is nearly paralyzed by the past, especially by her mysterious connection to the Vatunases. Other characters -- in a big ahistorical jumble -- take a berth on a foreign ship, give the United States a try, commit suicide, marry Englishmen, smash up cars, take up art, take up drink, gamble, get religion, get pregnant, get blown up by bombs.

In this crowd, Prins, like his father, initially seems blessed. At one point he talks his way into a lucrative job as a management consultant in England, despite having no experience. When he gives this up to return to Sri Lanka in an attempt to make some sense of his life, he finds still more success in the corporate world. He has his own brilliant business idea, falls in love with a Vatunas granddaughter and eventually starts working with a Vatunas grandson.

At the same time, it is Prins who is the most tormented by the situation in his native land, who makes sardonic remarks about goon squads and the like. ''Sinhala kids, Tamil kids, it's all the same,'' he observes. ''Fodder for the politicos. On every side the rich are scheming and the rest are reeling.'' This consciousness, coupled with his natural drive and energy, makes the question of reconciling a desire for success in the world with an acknowledgment of that same world's glaring evils particularly pointed. Prins has, in a sense, already got his answer through his father's story: such a reconciliation is impossible. Yet he still has the optimism of youth. He cannot believe things aren't going to get better.

''The Sandglass'' is very different from Gunesekera's first novel, ''Reef,'' which was a finalist for Britain's Booker Prize. A relatively limited, unified, faux-naif story about a cook in a wealthy household, ''Reef'' has some of the most mouthwatering food writing I have ever read. The new novel is often as successful on the sentence-to-sentence level. Take this passage, when Chip is rooting about his house, trying to find some Champagne for a celebration: ''The cellar was brimming with junk. I found the bottle in the well of a dead VW wheel, as I had suspected. It was cold. The doorbell rang while I was still rummaging, seized by a need to find a screwdriver I had once lost down there.''

''Reef'' is in some ways the more competent book. It has no awkward transitions or irritating digressions. It doesn't require two family trees to help keep the characters straight. ''The Sandglass'' may simply have too much crammed into too small a space. But there is no doubt that this is an important novel, and I would rather read it than many more timid works. It pesters, it cross-pollinates, it lingers. Early on, Chip says that he ''wouldn't know what was going on anywhere in the best of times.'' At the novel's end, although he is the only one left to put everything together, finally he cannot. His chilling explanation: ''I wanted to live in hope as much as in truth.''

Jacqueline Carey

17 January 1999

New York Times