Reef Summary and Book Review

A summary and review of the novel "Reef" written by the famous Sri Lankan novelist, Romesh Gunesekera.
Reef (1994) is a novel written by the British novelist with Sri Lankan origin Romesh Gunesekera. The novel revolves around the life of Triton from boyhood to adulthood. Most of the story takes place in Sri Lanka except the last part which takes place in London. The novel is written in the first person, narrated by Triton's adult voice. The novel starts when Triton takes us back to the year 1962 when he was eleven years old. Triton could not return home after burning the thatched roof of a hut in his school yard by accident. His father went mad and Triton ran away to his uncle who promised to arrange a new life for him. His uncle took him to Mr. Salgado's house to work as a houseboy. The house was on the beach. His uncle tells Mr. Ranjan Salgado that Triton is a smart boy and can learn very quickly.

Mr. Salgado is a rich young man who works as a marine biologist. He studies the effect of sea erosion of the coral reefs of the Sri Lankan beaches. Mr. Salgado was thin and had a curved spine. He spoke slowly, almost hesitantly. ''When Mr. Salgado spoke, I would be captivated. I could lose myself in his voice.'' (Gunesekera: 7). Joseph was the head servant in Mr. Salgado's house. He maltreated Triton from day one and the latter resented him. At first Triton's job was to take the young master his morning tea and then sweep the front veranda and steps. Until he proved himself, he was not allowed to make tea, or dust or sweep inside the rooms. The broom he was given was very tall and he was afraid to break anything. One day Triton had an idea: he cut the handle short so he can manage it. Cutting the broom was the start of the trouble with Joseph:

I was meant to help Joseph, but he resented me from the beginning. Perhaps because, despite my circumstances, I was not of his kind. Joseph had come to work for Mr. Salgado two years earlier. He was from Kosgahapola, a small brackish village on the other side of Ambalan-goda beyond the mask makers. He had wriggled his way into a job in a government Rest House until a buy election resulted in his being kicked out. The opposition had won and the local party workers were being paid off. (Gunesekera: 9)

When Mr. Salgado stood for Triton, he felt that he is in the right place. Joseph laid out the rules for him; he told him where and when to sleep and when to get up. Triton was filled with hate and resentment towards Joseph to the extent that he thought many times of taking revenge from him. Joseph was arrogant and sadistic. ''It made my blood boil just to think of him contaminating the world with his foul breath, controlling my destiny.'' (Gunesekera: 14)

Triton used to watch Lucy Amma, Mr. Salgado's cook, doing her work. He learned about cutting onions from watching her. He was interested in onions as a refuge and an escape from Joseph. Joseph hated onions and could not stand their smell. When Triton and Lucy Amma were cutting onions, Joseph would go far away from the kitchen. Lucy Amma is an old woman is her seventies. She has been cooking since the turn of the twentieth century. Sri Lanka has faced many changes during her life. She had known Mr. Salgado as a child while she was bringing up her own. She served his grandfather as well as his father after him and now Mr. Salgado. Lucy Amma's way of cooking has not changed. She believes that cooking is like sex has not changed throughout history.

For Triton, Mr. Salgado's house was the center of universe and everything takes place in its enclosure. In September 1963, Mr. Salgado had planned to go away for a few days to his cousin's tea estate, Joseph was in charge of the house during his absence. Triton admits that although he stayed in the house for more than a year, he has never felt happy because of the presence of Joseph. He believed that if he stayed with Joseph for a long time, he will eventually become corrupted.

Mr. Salgado has been to the best of Colombo's schools. Despite that fact he regarded himself as largely self educated. He came from a line of people who believed in making their own future. To him, there were no boundaries to knowledge. He studied insects and sea creatures and wrote articles about them.

After Mr. Salgado left the house, Lucy Amma also went away, on her annual visit home. Joseph was responsible to give Triton food and he hated the idea of being dependent on him ''I felt trapped. Blood pounded in my head at the thought that there was nobody else in the house - in the world - except Joseph and me.'' (Gunesekera: 25)

Triton declares that what he hated most about Joseph was the power he had over him. The power to make him feel powerless. He was not a big man but he had a long rectangular face and big head and hands. Triton rubbed his body with onion to protect himself from him. On a rainy day, Joseph left the house without saying where he is going. Without Joseph, Triton felt safe and comfortable. Joseph came back at night drunk and tried to rape Triton:

He came towards me locking me with his gaze. I couldn't move. I swallowed and swallowed but my mouth was dry. I couldn't get anything to move from inside. Joseph had his mouth open and his tongue thickened between his teeth. I could see the spittle on his lips bubbling. He lunged forward and grabbed me. I lashed out with my hand. If I could hit his jaw his tongue would fall out, but his arms were like steel belts around me. He pushed me on the big soft bed. He was on top of me, twice my size, squeezing the life out of me and the breath out of my chest. His fist digging between my legs and punching a hole in me. The more I struggled, the stronger he became. I bit his arm and he nearly broke my back. In the end I gave up and died. Let the life out of my body, and he froze. Then with one hand he undid his sarong and pulled at his dribbling warped prick. He looked down at it, and slipped out from under him down to the floor. He rolled over still holding himself. He was breathing hard, his body was pumping. I found a shoe under the bed and flung it at him. I wanted to scream but I couldn't. I had no voice. I jumped up and ran out of the house. (Gunesekera: 36)

Mr. Salgado came back the next morning and was angry for not finding Joseph. He asked Triton about Joseph's whereabouts but he says that he does not know. Triton does not tell Mr. Salgado about the attack but he preferred to be silent. He thought that if he does not speak about it, it will go away, but it did not. Joseph came back home drunk and Mr. Salgado was in the front bay watching him walk up. Mr. Salgado ordered him to collect his things and leave the house. He fired him and paid him one month's severance. Surprisingly, Triton felt sorry for him:

I felt sorry for Joseph even though I hated him; the moment he began to fall, my feelings began to change [...] Joseph seemed to change in front of my eyes from a spumy barrel full of stunted frogs into a pitiful little man obsessed by the small world that he had lorded and was now too stinking drunk to understand what is happening to it. (Gunesekera: 41)

Mr. Salgado put Triton in charge of the house and the latter felt overwhelmed by the responsibility. Mr. Salgado suggested that Triton should go to school as he is a smart boy but Triton refuses and declares that all what he needs to learn is to watch Mr. Salgado ''I watched him unendingly, all the time, and I learned become what I am.'' (Gunesekera: 43)

Mr. Salgado's closest friend was Mr. Dias Liyanage. He had known him from his schooldays. Dias had become a government officer, following his father's footsteps. His father had been involved in the program for the Queen when she first came from England and Dias often claimed that he spoke to her and traveled with her all the way to Polonnaruwa in his shorts. Triton became an expert in the kitchen and he knew how to prepare various delicious local dishes. Mr. Salgado went on with his studies about the coral reefs. His main concern was how fast the coral reefs are disappearing due to external factors like bombing, mining and netting as he explains to Dias:

You see, this polyp is really very delicate. It had survived eons, but even a small change in the immediate environment - even so if you pee on the reef - could kill it. Then the whole thing will go. And if the structure is destroyed, the see will rush in. The sand will go. The beach will disappear. That is my hypothesis. (Gunesekera: 48)

When Mr. Salgado was gone to the observatory, Triton would spend a long time in his study reading his books and magazines. But Triton also yearned to see the real world. He wanted to see life outside the house. He had the chance to see the outside world when Mr. Salgado was taking Dias to the observatory. He ordered Triton to prepare himself as he was going with them. Triton was excited, he prepared himself and took all the equipment he needed for cooking. On their way to the observatory in the land rover, they saw people praying inside a temple square and drivers and travelers stuffed money into a blessing box in the wall. Triton jumps out of the car and drops ten cents in the box for all their sake. Triton declares that he is not a believer and says that he is a rationalist like Mr. Salgado:

Mr. Salgado's observatory was a bungalow on the beach. There he saw Mr. Salgado's assistant, Wejitunga. Wijetunga had a black plastic binder filled with grids and numbers where he recorded twice a day after measuring the tide mark on the beach. He counted the corals, sea slugs and other sea creatures and studied them. He then writes a report and shows it to Mr. Salgado.

After sometime Miss Nili entered Mr. Salgado and Triton's lives and changed it forever. Miss Nili is Triton's first encounter with women. He had special feelings for her along with his master's but Triton's love was platonic. He expressed her love for her by cooking her delicious food and baking delicious meals. Nili gave Triton a cooking book as a Christmas present. Nili was an outgoing liberal independent young woman. During her relationship with Mr. Salgado she worked in a hotel for tourists but at some point she quit her job to start her own business which is running her own guesthouse.

At the beginning Nili used to come as a guest with Mr. Salgado's other friends but later she moved in and it was the beginning of a new era as Triton declares. She stayed in the house without an official position. Miss Nili and Mr. Salgado held parties in the house for friends or went out to parties or restaurants nearly everyday. Mr. Salgado started to be distracted from his research which annoyed his assistant, Wijetunga. Mr. Salgado should have been drawing his conclusions in big report but instead he kept asking his assistants to write more reports and study more samples. Among their friends, Nili and Mr. Salgado were a daring example of a real modern couple. They were in love, independent and carefree. Instead of a traditional extended family, they grew up a network of friends and admires. Their friends kept coming eagerly to see how long the romance would last. Among their friends was Tippy.

Tippy was one of Mr. Salgado's own friends, he had come back recently from America with a ''beer gut and an addiction to cards.'' (Gunesekera: 138) Nili did not like him. She despised the way he flirted with her. She believed that Tippy thought he was charming and charismatic because of the years he spent in America. Suddenly, one day a fight broke out between Mr. Salgado and Nili, a fight that marked the end of their relationship though not their love. At night, Triton heard them fighting and their voices were very loud, louder than he had ever heard them before. Mr. Salgado accused Nili of going to bed with one of their common male friends. After exchanging harsh words, Nili left the house the next morning without goodbyes and left Mr. Salgado in a miserable state of melancholy. Triton tried everything to get him out of his condition but all his attempts were in vain. Everyday Mr. Salgado grew sadder and thinner. Moreover, something tragic happened that changed their life irrevocably. Dias disappeared in the sea and after few days his inflated corpse was appeared on the shore pushed by the waves.

By that time, political unrest started to erupt in Sri Lanka. Mr. Salgado told Triton to prepare himself as they are traveling to London. He told him that he had an offer to work in a marine biology institute there and that he had accepted. In London Mr. Salgado rented an apartment near Gloucester Road and immediately started to work. They did not go anywhere until the following spring, when Mr. Salgado arranged a visit to Wales where a colleague of his had a cottage to rent.

Back home by that time, in April 1971 violence escalated and they watched news reports about explosions, gunfire and insurgencies tearing up the country. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands grieved. Triton describes the events that he saw on TV that appalled him:

News reports of ghastly beheading on the beach. But these were only precursors of the staggering brutality that came, wave after wave, in the decades that followed, the suffocating infernos, the burning necklaces, flaming molten rings of fire; Region of Terror; this suppurating ethnic war. The bodies would roll again and again in the surf, they would be washed in by the tide and be beached by the dozen the lives of brothers, sisters, men and women, lovers, fathers and mothers and children would be blighted time and time again, unremembered. (Gunesekera: 173)

In 1976, Mr. Salgado decides that it is time to settle permanently in England and bought a maisonette in Earls Court. Triton started to educate himself. He read all Mr. Salgado's books and went to classes and libraries. Triton suggested that they should open a restaurant but Mr. Salgado told him that some day, he will be able to do it by himself. Mr. Salgado bought a car and taught Triton how to drive. They traveled all over England and visited the historical places, museums, gardens and parks.

In 1983, a new wave of violence erupted again in Colombo. Again they saw the appalling images and videos on TV. Mr. Salgado received a phone call from his friend Tippy. He was changing planes to Heathrow heading for New York on business. He told Mr. Salgado about the situation in Sri Lanka and what happened to Nili. She was running a guesthouse for tourists and had done well. But during the recent violence she sheltered a Tamil family because their own homes were destroyed. She hauled off the mob that came after them the next day the mob had come with cans of kerosene and set fire to the place. She had lost everything and had no one beside her. Mr. Salgado decided to go back for Nili but Triton did not go back with him. He stayed in London and opened a restaurant that became successful. ''It was the only way I could success, without a past, without a name, without Ranjan Salgado standing by my side.'' (Gunesekera: 180)


Gunesekera, Romesh. Reef. London: Granta Books, 1994.
Published: 6/21/2016
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