Romesh Gunesekera launches Suncatcher
“Some of you may remember Colombo in 1964 and may remember it better than I do,” laughed Sri Lankan-born British author Romesh Gunesekera, referring to his latest book Suncatcher. “You might recognise some of the localities in the book, some of the places, some of the streets and others of you would probably not believe it’s true. But I’d like you to, just for a moment, suspend your disbelief and just go with the flow. What I want, really more than anything else is for these boys – Kairo and Jay – to become your friends, and they will stay with you forever, I hope. And I also want, I guess, for you to remember the past a little bit and also remember the things I remember.”
Gunesekera was all gratitude and charm at the elegant event to launch his book, which was hosted by The British Council in its library, drawing in literature lovers, library members, and friends on the evening of Tuesday, 28 January.
A coming-of-age story, set in ‘60s Sri Lanka, Suncatcher relates the tale of two boys – Kairo and Jay – who are on the brink of a friendship that will alter the course of their lives.
“In the book, we’re at a time when the Government is in disarray, it’s losing its tiny majority day by day in what was Ceylon then. The education system is broken, the religious rite is flexing its muscles, the press and the media have become a bit of a battleground, and the elections are looming… but this is Ceylon in 1964, a long time ago,” Gunesekera expressed, painting a picture to an eager audience, before reading excerpts from his book. It was hard not to instantly be engaged. The words, it seemed were musical almost; the story affecting.
Ceylon is on the verge of change. Kairo’s hard-working mother blows off steam at her cha-cha-cha classes; his Trotskyite father grumbles over the state of the nation between his secret flutters on horse races in faraway England. All Kairo wants to do is hide in his room and flick over second-hand westerns and superhero comics, or escape on his bicycle and daydream. Then he meets the magnetic teenager Jay, and his whole world is turned inside out.
A budding naturalist and a born rebel, Jay keeps fish and traps birds for an aviary he is building in the garden of his grand home. The adults in Jay’s life have no say in what he does or where he goes. He holds his beautiful, fragile mother in contempt, and his wealthy father seems fuelled by anger. But his Uncle Elvin, suave and worldly, is his encourager. As Jay guides him from the realm of make believe into one of hunting guns and fast cars and introduces him to a girl – Niromi – Kairo begins to understand the price of privilege and embarks on a journey of devastating consequence.
Delving into how complicated friendships influence a young dreamer to sudden awakenings, Suncatcher addresses the promises of privilege and the uncertainty of life. The loss of childish innocence is charted, perhaps, reminding us of our own recurring search for love, consolation, and happiness.
Of time, change and consolation
Growing up both here in Sri Lanka and in the Philippines, and now a citizen of the UK, Gunesekera is also the author of Monkfish Moon, The Sandglass, The Match, Noontide Toll,and the Booker-Prize-shortlisted author of Reef.
The moderator Jill MacDonald queried Gunesekera about his tendency to explore the concept of time in his books. He responded: “In this novel, we have Kairo who is actually deliberately going back in time, whereas in another sort of companion piece Reef, the narrator Triton is on a journey where he is kind of leaving the past behind and entering a new world. So these are two different ways of dealing with time. With this one, it’s also about the philosophy of consolation which is something that as you get older, you have to come to terms with. In this story, it’s about one of the boys trying to deal with the change that life is – it’s a continuous change – when quite often we want to stop time and keep it there.”
MacDonald affirmed the strong sense of inevitability in the novel, before moving on to ask if Suncatcher, whilst being a picture of an earlier Ceylon, is also one of an earlier period in the author’s life. “It’s a mixture of both,” he said, adding that in some ways it’s a novel that’s been there since he was very young; probably been in the back of his head even before he started writing. “This idea of a special friendship and its fragility was very important to me. When I was very young – perhaps Kairo’s age – I did have a friend who died, sadly at a young age. A little later, I had another friend who died, also very young. So this idea of loss and change is something I would approach in my writing in some ways, and it just happened so that there was a moment when I saw a way of shaping it into a story.”
Gunesekera was quick to add that, perhaps there is another reason for the book. “It is kind of a ricochet from the last book – Noontide Toll, which was set very much in that time – in the now – immediately after the war, exploring what life was like then. After writing that book, I thought I’d like to go to a very different time – a time where you didn’t have this history of the last 30 years. This other world, did it have the seeds of the current world or not?”
The event came to a close after a few rounds of questions from the audience members that drew some laughter and amusement from all. “The factors that drove me to certain books were really quite ridiculous factors,” shared Gunesekera candidly, in response to a question on what kind of books he read as a child, and how they influenced his writing. Limited funds to purchase the treasures would mean Gunesekera visited second-hand bookshops and bought whatever he could with the money he had rustled up. “I basically read very popular fiction, starting from detective stories and thrillers like The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Famous Five and moving to what is described in the book (Suncatcher) as ‘mystifying adult thrillers’.” His introduction to what anyone would term “classics” came much later; but Gunesekera didn’t really think this mattered. “What the books I read really gave me was a love for other worlds; worlds that came out of pages.”
Celebrating 70 years in Sri Lanka, The British Council has been present in Sri Lanka since the immediate post-independence period, representing the UK in all aspects of cultural relations, building connections and opportunities between people of the UK and Sri Lanka.