The novel is pervaded by a sense of threatened beauty: the flash of fish, the flight of birds, the slant of sun on trees, a yearning for innocence. The world described, like Jay, is brilliant, and far more brittle than it seems. The adults seem to blame the gathering clouds on different things, mostly religious and linguistic nationalism. Gunesekera does not give us any other explanation but he suggests – in Jay’s insensitivity to a retainer’s son half-blinded during one of his “Cowboys and Indians” games – an explanation more complicit, a failure ingrained deep in the colonial past.
As a coming-of-age novel, Suncatcher is memorable and sometimes brilliant in its ability to map the tensions between leader and follower, the arc and trajectory of boys trying so impatiently to become men. This is also a wise and poignant portrait of a country — Ceylon before it became Sri Lanka — caught in the moment before it loses its innocence, all the signs and portents in place, but the bloodiness of war still unthinkable. “I wanted to begin again,” Kairo says towards the end of Suncatcher. “With no bad things ever having to happen.” His heartache is a familiar one. Many of Gunesekera’s readers everywhere will recognise that same longing in themselves, even if they and Kairo cannot swerve out of history’s way.
it’s what’s happening in the background — the slippage of democratic decency, the tightening of state control, the inflaming of ethnic tensions — that most grips you. Harking back to the 1960s in a period piece suffused with foreboding, Gunesekera captures the first rumblings of the cataclysm that would ruinously engulf his nation and that has always compulsively engaged him.
Glimpses of a lyrical and soulful voice flicker occasionally – Gunesekera touches universality when he writes “I was convinced that we were more than what we seemed: that we were boys whose bodies were dross, whose bodies would one day be discarded”. Ultimately, though, Suncatcher gives off the strangest air of not actually being a novel. It’s the plot of a teen movie reheated, all detail planed away to make room for the conventions of genre. It makes one ask what stories are actually for – aren’t novels called novels because they should contain something new?
It’s no crime that Gunesekera puts sensibility over plot; so did Proust. Still, there’s always machinery, and the sprockets are rusty here. Kairo keeps overhearing the secrets that shape his life; he’s forever at his ‘listening post’ on the landing, or wandering into earshot of hapless adult chat. And few people in Gunesekera’s novels talk like creatures of flesh and blood. Kairo, for example, doesn’t like seeing Niromi with Jay: ‘The heart, I’d learnt, was the size of a fist: it pummelled the young dove I’d nurtured inside.’
But Suncatcher can be sumptuous too, painting the ‘slowly blistering air’ in the paddy fields and the wild colours of jungle life. And why not luxuriate? Childhood, like empire, was never a naturalistic thing.