The Match by Romesh Gunesekera

02/04/06, The Observer

The slow-burn of an anomie infects the very soul of Sunny Fernando, a baffled, silent drifter in the stream of his own life. At times it is an accidie of the will, a Hamletesque paralysis, sometimes it is an inability to squeeze time and life in a ball and send it rolling towards some overwhelming end with purposeful determination, at other times it is his haunting by a past that is leaky and full of holes. In the middle of all this, an event when he was sixteen and living in the affluent, gated suburb of Makati in Manila stands out as an abiding ‘moment of being’ – a cricket match organised by his father, Lester, in an effort to recreate a little bit of his home, Ceylon, which he has left behind him. It is not just that game, so dear to the heart of everyone from the ex-colonies in a way that England cannot comprehend or has forgotten, but also the bewitching presence of Tina Navaratnam, effortlessly cool and beautiful and a crack hand with a cricket bat that occupy the innermost sanctum of Sunny’s heart.

In fact, his later life will be given over to seeking out the wholeness of that day in an effort to shore up his frangible exile’s life in London. He comes to London to study engineering but drifts into other things, his heart not wholly in any of them. He meets fellow immigrants, uneasily trying to position himself in their new worlds, but has provisional and limited success, unsure of ‘what to hang on to, what to let go, what to give, what to take’. Meanwhile, the Phillipines comes under the talons of Marcos while Sri Lanka slides into civil war and massacre. He meets Clara, falls in love with her, and fathers a son, Mikey. Until this point, Romesh Gunesekera’s fourth novel, The Match, is an elusively quiet and measured study of rootlessness and home-making, an almost healing counterpoint to the brash brass-bugle-and-timpani of what passes for contemporary fiction. Its dominant mood is an intense melancholy, its tone gracefully muffled, its nuanced washes of grey a perfect fit for the landscape of deracination and exile. Such unbounded generosity towards his characters, such subtle and gentle warmth, is only possibly by a novelist who is in deep sympathetic resonance with the very rhythms of the human heart.

So it comes as a shock that the book reverses all this and goes awry with Mikey’s birth in 1986. The rudderless drift of life is difficult to catch truthfully in fiction without the narrative sharing the same indirection and stasis and as Sunny’s life gets caught in its own solipsistic eddies, the story seems to chase its tail in an endless loop as well. In an effort to galvanise the writing, Gunesekera becomes overt about the tectonic shifts of politics that had remained as subtly modulated noises off so far. The depredations of the LTTE in Sri Lanka bother Sunny obtrusively. Personal events unfold against this backdrop of despair – his father dies, the truth about his mother’s death when he was eight continues to haunt him, his partnership with Clara becomes more and more attenuated, he continues to be prey to ‘a longing for something that goes to the heart of everything’.

A dread sententiousness creeps into the second half and there’s a damaging mingling of registers – sarcastic observations with bad jokes, failed comedy with social criticism. So, in the first half we get the radiant, restrained beauty of ‘At Runcorn they sped over a river of ink, a bridge falling into darkness. The horizon disappeared and a grey grain obscured everything. The train rattled in a void’. It brings to mind the lush felicities of Monkfish Moon, and his beautiful first novel, Reef. In the second half, the effect of phrases such as ‘conversations had to be punctuated by … kutchi-coos and pipi-poos flying between caged playpens and tilted high chairs’, a description of Clara’s early motherhood and Sunny’s own passion for photography as ‘while she clucked, he clicked’, all achieve a bathos so damaging to a novel that purports to be about the minute fallings away and vanishings of life.

It is through two cricket matches, one between Sri Lanka and England, and the culminating one, a one-day between Sri Lanka and India that Sunny gropes his way towards a kind of redemption at the end. Tina makes a surprise appearance, crude nationalisms of several strains are rebuked, photography holds out the possibility of salvation and the slow trickling away of life through his fingers suddenly reveals its design to Sunny, allowing him to staunch its flow. But after so much narrative drift and procrastination, the unexpected hope held out at the end sounds a dismayingly unconvincing note.