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HEAVEN'S EDGE by Romesh Gunesekera
Grove Press, 2002, 234 pp., ISBN: 0-8021-1735-X

Charlie Dickinson

Think of the lush lyricism of GREEN MANSIONS by W. H. Hudson crossed with the stop-and-drop violence of Mickey Spillane. That gives some idea of the narrative mix in HEAVEN'S EDGE. Born in Sri Lanka, now resident in London, Romesh Gunesekera gained critical notice when his first novel, REEF, was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize. His latest novel shows the nomination was no fluke.
HEAVEN'S EDGE happens sometime in the future--the year 2015 seems likely--on an unnamed tropical island in the Indian Ocean that might, but need not be Sri Lanka.

After too many years of war, the island is controlled by marauding soldiers, an eventual outcome one might reasonably expect of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger insurgency. Tribal violence is the new political institution. This tropical heaven that slip-slid away into dystopic hell draws protagonist Marc away from London.

Marc's pilgrimage is in memory of his father, who died on the island when Marc was but a child. One impetus is the recent discovery of an "antiquated video cassette" his father had made in 1998, before going to fight as a mercenary fighter pilot. Ironically, Marc was raised by a pacifist grandfather, who condemned his son--Marc's father--for fighting, even if the battlefield was the grandfather's birthplace. This dissonance about political violence from father and grandfather sharpens a conflict Marc must resolve for himself.

Once he arrives at the indifferently named Palm Beach Hotel, Marc is lost about where to begin searching for the island spirit that, in effect, his dad died for. Everywhere, it seems, the police state offers nothing more than a dismal tourist experience. That is, until in a variation on the story staple of "boy meets girl," Marc meets the captivating, free-spirited Uva (who is not unlike Rima in GREEN MANSIONS). She has a retreat in the jungle, hidden, where she lovingly keeps a sanctuary for the flora and fauna mostly lost to the widespread destruction of war. But then the two are lost to each other. Marc and Uva are both victims of political violence.

Imprisoned, Marc winds up in a futuristic third-world city, Maravil, where recognizable high-tech gadgetry--smart-card readers, internet databases, and the like--enslave ordinary citizens. High-tech for malevolent ends is but one of Gunesekera's eerie suggestions for a future gone wrong.

Marc escapes from Maravil with two companions: Jaz, an androgynous bartender, and Kris, a strong, silent type with mechanical talent. Marc wants to find Uva. He has no more than the name of a region to go on. Interlaced with the fast action narrative are spells of lyric intensity in which Marc begins to understand his dad's fatal attraction for this island.

In more senses than one, Marc becomes his dad. He flies in a glider believed to have been invented on the island in the year 2,525 B.C. And as readers, we willingly suspend disbelief at this encroachment on the achievement of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. With such narrative power, Gunesekera realizes an ambitious portrait of heaven and hell in one place, which tragically is a combination mankind is not incapable of pulling off.

© Charlie Dickinson Feb 2003

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