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A fictional journey that links Colombo, Manila and London

Daniel Alarcn, associate editor of the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra and author of the novel "Lost City Radio" reviews Romesh Gunesekera's latest novel The Match, just published in the US, for the Washington Post.

Romesh Gunesekera's "The Match" opens in Manila in the 1970s, still the relatively early days of Ferdinand Marcos's presidency. It is a time of great optimism, and the suggestively named Sunny Fernando has come to the Philippines with his recently widowed father, a Sri Lankan journalist, to start anew.

The novel's first section centers on Sunny's ordinary adolescent concerns - friends, girls, school, music - until another Sri Lankan family arrives with Tina, their fetching teenage daughter, and the growing expatriate community organizes a cricket match.

Early in the novel, cricket becomes a proxy through which to discuss the legacy of colonialism, the new Asia and hope for Sri Lanka, among other issues. As for the action, it flits by. The cricket match is described in great detail, ending quite dramatically, but its pleasures soon are overwhelmed by a dark revelation about the death of Sunny's mother.

Golden moment

A golden moment has passed, and in the years after the match, the expat community slowly disbands: One player ends up in rehab; Tina and her family move to the United States; the Marcos regime turns despotic and barbarous.

As for Sunny, he moves to London to study engineering. Once there, he pairs up with an Englishwoman named Clara, has a child and becomes a photographer. From that point on, "The Match" becomes a bland snapshot of middle-class English domestic life.

The novel's arc, spanning 3 1/2 decades and very disparate worlds - Colombo, Manila, London and back again - seems to display a certain ambition: a globalized novel for this post-Sept. 11 world, a tapestry of stories about those of us who don't ever feel completely at home anywhere.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that "The Match" is a novel about politics, though the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war, a conflict that has claimed nearly 70,000 lives since it began in 1983, do form the novel's dim backdrop.

Elsewhere, most notably in his critically acclaimed 1994 novel "Reef," a Booker Prize finalist, Gunesekera has tackled the ruinous violence plaguing his native country.

Here, however, he presents another side of the story: the emotional cost of exile, the narcotizing comfort of drifting away from a history of violence. Sunny is not directly affected by the great drama of nations - political unrest, ethnic conflict, extreme violence. These lie dormant, only now and then slinking onto center stage. Instead, we watch Sunny float, without any real effort or conviction, away from his past.

Character

When suicide bombers kill a minor character we've only just met, the man's passing is noted in a scant line or two. We don't feel it, and if Sunny does, it is only in the most diffuse way: one more layer to his anomie, as ill-defined as it is ever-present.

The success of a novel like this depends on a reader's willingness to accept Sunny's laconic, untethered perspective. Some may enjoy it; I found it off-putting. We read a great deal but learn very little about Gunesekera's protagonist. For a photographer, he has a rather unconvincing relationship with the visual world.

No place ever comes alive, and only a few characters manage to. Of Colombo, our intrepid photographer takes only "pictures of buildings, cars, birds. Kids playing cricket." Manila, too, merits hardly a glance: When Sunny returns for his father's funeral, we learn only that the Philippine capital "had changed since Sunny's early days."

How it changed is apparently beyond the purview of this book. Gunesekera's writing is uneven at best.

In one scene, Sunny and Clara discover their love for one another with a preposterous, lightning-strike quality usually reserved for overproduced Hollywood romances. The author purrs: "The right words, at the right time, in the right place, were like a key turning in a lock. His heart, and hers, opened."

This facile rendering of human emotion is frankly depressing to read, and moments like this are sprinkled everywhere throughout this remarkably unsubtle novel. Sunny visits a clockmaker and feels time stand still.

In England, Sunny is poured his first Guinness, and we are subjected to a commercial-in-prose extolling the edifying pleasures of a good stout ("This is a drink that teaches you patience.").

In the end, it is the accumulated effect of this sort of writing that sinks the novel. Sunny Fernando has, in theory at least, an interesting story to tell, but Gunesekera has written a solipsistic coming-of-age story, daring us to watch this boy grow into a not-very-interesting man. As "The Match" progresses, it is increasingly difficult to believe that Sunny cares very much about any of the things we are assured he holds dear.

He is a photographer who never bothers to look closely, a son haunted by the ghost of a mother he never really thinks about, a supposedly devoted cricket fan who exists happily without his beloved game for the better part of three decades. All of which makes a reader wonder: If the protagonist can't be bothered, why should we?

For the Washington Post

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