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