Boyhood crushes on boys, like girlhood crushes on girls, often have less to do with physical desire than with a wish to lose oneself entirely in someone else’s company.
The feeling isn’t so much I-want-to-be-with-you as I-want-to-BE-you.
Sri Lankan-British writer Romesh Gunesekera, a Booker Prize finalist for his 1994 novel “Reef,” captures this identity-altering brand of infatuation brilliantly in his new novel, “Suncatcher.” Set in Colombo in 1964 at a time when Ceylon — as it was then called — was under a socialist regime, it’s narrated by a quiet teenager, Kairo, whose world explodes when he comes under the sway of the slightly older, decidedly more adventurous Jay Alavis.
Both boys instantly succumb to “a nervous delight in the novelty of each other.” It isn’t just Jay’s charisma that attracts Kairo. It’s his collection of aquariums housing 11 species of fish and his assortment of caged birds for which he’s building a more spacious aviary. Jay’s wealthy, eccentric family also stands in exotic contrast to Kairo’s. Jay’s dreamily glamorous mother (“Her caftan — oyster blue — could have adorned Cleopatra in some Technicolor oasis”) seems to belong to a different species than Kairo’s mother. Jay’s father is disengaged from his family in a way that Kairo’s father isn’t. And there’s no one in Kairo’s family who’s anything like Jay’s genial Uncle Elvin.
Although Kairo is sometimes embarrassed by his parents, they have an offbeat appeal to the reader. His Trotskyist dad, a senior executive officer at the Labor Department, is a racetrack-betting addict. (“There is nothing anti-socialist,” he insists, “about a bit of fun.”) His plainspoken, sensible mother works at Radio Ceylon. Both are on board with the country’s leftist agenda, although they’re concerned about political unrest. National fiscal crises loom. Schools are being closed due to civic chaos. Pressure to conduct government business in Sinhala — the language of Sri Lanka’s ethnic majority — presents a problem for Kairo’s anglophone father.
Kairo’s attitude toward the mounting mayhem is age appropriate. Looking over his father’s party newspaper, with its “columns choked with acronyms and ungainly words,” he can’t help asking, “Don’t they do even a single cartoon in your paper?” And he takes school closures in stride: “Strikes plus holidays guaranteed at least a day off every week. One more day to spend loafing.”
His attention focuses more on “waiting to grow up, waiting for childhood’s demons to die, waiting for my life to start. Waiting for someone like Jay to turn up and switch on the lights.”
It doesn’t take long, however, for the enchantments of the Alavises to fade a little. Jay’s father seems poised to abandon his family. Uncle Elvin is scrambling to come up with a suitably proletarian-friendly business that will persuade the socialist regime to let him hang on to his property. Jay’s mother begins to unravel. And Jay himself reveals character flaws — "abruptness, scorn, temper, unexpected weaknesses” — for which Kairo increasingly feels the need to “make amends.” When a possible girlfriend for Jay comes into the picture, perhaps replacing Kairo in his affections, the bliss of first friendship gives way to something far more anxiety-inducing.
Gunesekera’s prose is lush yet luminously clear, and Kairo — as he deciphers the world around him and his place in that world — is the perfect guide to the book’s turbulent setting. Kairo’s sense of cultural stirrings beyond Colombo is vivid, too. “The world I saw around me bore no resemblance to the wider world I read about. Everywhere else,” he remarks, “things worked differently — from star charts to song charts.”
There’s humor in the way that Kairo’s parents register the pop phenomena that excite their son. (“I see your Beatles have made a film,” his father wryly comments.) Even the post-colonial politics of the book are couched in fanciful terms. One of his parents’ friends, suggesting that tourism might be the economic salvation of Ceylon, declares, “From England, Holland, Portugal, all those old imperialist countries, they’ll come rushing — in their bathing costumes instead of their gunboats.”
While Kairo’s infatuation with Jay verges on physical desire, he is, in this as in all matters, “as yet unclear about what I liked and what I disliked.” His appreciation of his parents is also in flux. Late in the novel, observing Jay’s parents, he realizes he has “never seen them in the same room together; they functioned as an optical puzzle where if one became visible, the other disappeared.”
In contrast, his own bickering mother and father have “a much stronger bond than I had thought,” he notices. “They stuck together, disconnected from any extended family. … Hunkered down, my father preferred comrades to relatives but relied mostly on an idealistic future. My mother found release by immersing herself in a world of microphones and mellow voices, a musical fantasy that stretched from the Caribbean Beat to the Latin Quarter, and letting off steam at cha-cha-cha. Her ability to flit between separate worlds appealed to me; I wanted to be able to do the same.”
Though Gunesekera, born in 1954, is a little younger than Kairo, “Suncatcher” does seem to be a portrait of an author in the making as Kairo grows ever more aware “that language — the organisation of words — was infinitely more interesting to me than geometry, algebra and arithmetic.” Summing up his boyhood memories, he speaks of “hope and freedom, the benevolence of nature — even human nature — faultless friendship, love, genderless love. Or perhaps the reversal of all that.”
The pirouette turn of that last caveat hints at what makes this fresh novel so wonderful.
Michael Upchurch is the former Seattle Times book critic.
The New Press, 271 pages, $24.99