One may reasonably expect a book on Sri Lanka’s civil war to be somber—in particular, Michael Ondaatje’s crystalline and tragic novel Anil’s Ghost comes to mind. The linked stories in Romesh Gunesekera’s Noontide Toll, however, bring a surprisingly warm view to the aftermath of the quarter-century conflict between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tigers. (The BBC provides an overview of the conflict in its country profile.)
The warmth comes from the narration by Vasantha, a retired clerk working as an independent van driver. He’s a simple, earnest man with a sense of humor, calling it as he sees it about “the casual brutality of what passes for modern life now.” As he drives his clients—a doctor from the diaspora visiting his childhood home, Chinese businessmen inspecting scrap metal, and Western vacationers, among others—around the island, he reflects on the changes his nation has undergone since his youth and the end of the war.
The most significant of his reflections concern the inseparability of past and present. Though many others disagree—including one client, a legendary brigadier and playboy—Vasantha knows that history matters: “We believed there was no need for the two [past and present] to be connected. But as a driver, I should have known better. To go from one to the other, you need a road. And a road is nothing if it doesn’t connect.” He also shares his thoughts on less weighty matters, like hygienic reasons not to shake hands, or the redundancy of a marketing guru’s spiel.
Books in which folksy old men tell the reader what’s changed since back in the day are often failures. They contain charm and nostalgia but not much else (not to mention that their protagonists are usually less sophisticated than our nonfictional elders). Thanks to its troubled real-world backdrop, Noontide Toll largely avoids this pitfall. There’s charm and nostalgia, but there’s also lingering terror, loss, and uncertainty.
That’s not to say that this book is perfect. Vasantha’s aphorisms often go from earnest to corny and cliché: “These days, it seems, anything could happen.” Jarring as they are, such lines are merely blemishes on a narrative that succeeds in providing a warm look at a chilling issue.
–Available October 1st from The New Press