When the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist popped/ thumped through my letterbox (kindly sent by New Writing North who run the prize) I thought that I would head to the biggest first and work my way down, literally in size. However as my trip to America gets ever nearer so does my reading for it, which is roughly eight books some of which are massive, so I decided to pick a more slender volume and grabbed Noontide Toll. I soon discovered that Romesh Gunesekera’s latest work might be slender in size yet is a book that keeps on giving and most importantly keeps making you think both whilst reading and long after.
On the island of Sri Lanka we meet our narrator “Vasantha the van man” who, as you might have guessed from his nickname, spends his days driving around the island ferrying tourists, soldiers, business men and their colleagues or wives, ex pats, aid workers and more to their various destinations. In doing so, in what is a collection of short stories which form the novels narrative, he introduces us to all the aspects of present day Sri Lanka, it’s history, its people and also the predicament that it seems to find itself in as a place that has often been torn apart by wars and natural disasters.
‘You ok?’ I asked Chen.
‘Sure, sure.’ His head tilted, not quite as buoyant as he had been at the start. Perhaps he was too young to know any of the gruesome history of his homeland. Maybe there they don’t talk about the terrors of invasion, the herding of people, the famine, the ideological culling, the suppression of the decent. All that probably disappears in the harmonious joy of economic development. At least that’s the idea, I think.
I have to admit that reading Noontide Toll had a slightly shaming effect on me whilst being utterly fascinating, sometimes grimly so. Despite having some friends from the country I had absolutely no idea, other than the Boxing Day Tsunami, what turmoil the country had been through. As Vasantha drives through both the North and the South (which is also how the book is divided in parts as well as stories) we meet the landscape and people who have been scarred by the historical tumultuous past. Old mansions which if haven’t been blown up or destroyed have been ransacked for anything or worth, wrecked ships that have now become the backdrop to music videos. Hotel managers who can throw bottles at rats with such precision you know they have had to defend themselves, people whose grief at losing a family is etched on their faces and yet manage to stay positive on the lookout for turtles laying eggs at sunset.
Whether you know the whole history or not one of the most intriguing things which Vasantha notes when he is with any client, is that his homeland is now free of war yet is struggling in a whole new way as it tries to reclaim itself as a country and with other countries around the world. In some aspects, like with The Weightless World which I discussed a while ago, it is trying to work out what its place and its worth is within the economic worlds (be it tourism or business and trade) of both the West and Asia. It is also a country that is trying to decide what to do with its history; should it embrace it and own it or should it erase any sight of it? Can we really simply remember and move on? What is also somewhat unsettling is that it seems that those who live there are both wary and befuddled by their own homeland being a place of peace can it really last?
I asked the soldier whether I could park the van around the side. He shrugged. In the military I thought one had to be more decisive and heroic, but perhaps that was further up the chain of command and only in times of real conflict. Peace has made us all dozy, I guess. Even the crickets were muffled.
If this all sounds very serious, rather maudlin and a little heavy going, I promise you it is not. With the structure of this book Gunesekera gives you these wonderful intense vignettes from Vasantha that you can read as a single short standalone story in itself or indeed read a few as you are utterly charmed by Vasantha and some of the characters that he meets along the way and interweave creating a patchwork of views and insights into all walks of life from all over the place which form this incredibly complex world yet all in bite size portions which really entertain you whilst leaving lingering, occasionally unsettling, thoughts in your mind.
I found Vasantha a really interesting character. By the end of Noontide Toll you are utterly charmed by him and yet he remains something of an enigma. He gives you insight into the history of Sri Lanka and the lives of those in his van, yet bar the occasional titbit keeps himself something of a mystery. I wondered if this was because Gunesekera wanted him to literally be a vehicle for the reader, or if we were meant to feel like one of his clients on a long road trip around the island being told the tales of previous clients yet never themselves, as is the case often when you go aboard and have a driver. That slight customer and contractor relationship which is intimate yet distant all at once.
I think Vasantha is a marvellous creation and a brilliant character. He embodied everything l admired so much about Gunesekera’s colourful and vivid writing. As you go along his humour and (mainly) joyful wonder of everything around him is a delight. He always knows just when to tell you something funny amongst it all, one of my favourite moments which I think sums him up is when he describes a lighthouse as a naughty beacon of the south, perfect. I was completely charmed by him and his narration as we drove around and often felt his musings about life were very much like mine and in particular my thoughts on why we read.
I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it is like to drive on the other side of the road. I like to take foreign tourists around because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look, from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and return to. They are not all driven by the desire for sex in new places. Some want to know our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.
I am not sure I would have read Noontide Toll if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, as I have to admit I hadn’t heard of it until then, so I am very grateful that it has. It is a wonderfully narrated and intricately detailed tale of a country its history and its people, by the end I felt Gunesekera had educated me with writing of delicacy, wit and slight horror. It is also a book that will remind you why we read and why we should read as widely as we can to experience and learn through other people’s eyes. I would highly recommend giving it a read.
Have any of you read Noontide Toll or any of Gunesekera’s other novels? I have that lovely feeling you get when you discover a new-to-you writer where you want to run off and get your hands on everything else that they have written.