Unexpected bond helps navigate a turbulent boyhood

'Suncatcher' is a story of friendship and growing up, but also one of a country in flux and how it affects those caught up in it, writes Sonja van der Westhuizen

11 March 2020 - 15:39 By Sonja van der Westhuizen
'Suncatcher' by Romesh Gunesekera.
'Suncatcher' by Romesh Gunesekera.
Image: Supplied

“…most of my time was spent waiting, waiting to grow up, waiting for childhood’s demons to die, waiting for my life to start. Waiting for someone like Jay to turn up and switch on the lights.”

1964. While Ceylon finds itself at a political crossroad, young Kairo is growing up and enjoying the simple things in life, such as riding his bicycle through the streets of Colombo and not having to go to school.

After multiple visits to Mr Ismail’s bookshop where his innate curiosity is satisfied, he gradually discovers that the world he lives in has no resemblance to the wider one he reads about.

One June afternoon, during one of his bicycle excursions, he meets the charming and rebellious Jay in a church car park off the highroad and their friendship is instantly and effortlessly sealed.

Kairo is in awe of Jay and his world - a world on the other side of town at Casa Lihiniya, the Alavises family’s mansion where he lives with his overdramatic, alcoholic mother, an indifferent father and a conniving, enterprising uncle. In stark contrast, Kairo spends his home life on Grebe Road on the edge of Colombo’s newest residential block with his father, an armchair communist who passionately quotes Trotsky, and his long-suffering mother who works for the local radio station which his father considers to be “a mouthpiece for government propaganda”.

Kairo’s father ceaselessly spews out commentary on the country’s status quo and criticises its politicians. South African readers might recognise some similarities in Ceylon’s history, particularly references to land reform. Fortunately, this one-sided political commentary does not defer from the central story of Kairo and Jay, it merely provides an essential backdrop for it.

Kairo immerses himself in Jay’s world despite his father’s warnings that the Alavises are cut from a different cloth and class who only look after themselves. However, Jay’s extensive and impressive collection of birds and fish provide an enticing temporary escape from a life where money is tight and the future uncertain. Between building cages and hunting down birds the boys spend their days at the milk bar, cycling across town and hunting down bats and exotic birds.

But even Jay’s perfect world balances precariously on the edge of uncertainty. As time progresses Kairo catches on that Jay’s obsession to have control over his caged birds and his thirst for hunting and killing is indicative of his character. Kairo fears he will lose Jay’s friendship, but knows that, just as Jay can’t keep his birds caged, their friendship is just as precarious.

When the boys are taken on a fishing trip by Jay’s Uncle Elvin, a different side to Jay and his family, their prejudices, sense of entitlement and cruelty towards those they deem to be of a lesser class than them, is exposed.

With the title and furthermore throughout the novel, the bird motif is employed – at times it does become slightly too obvious. It becomes both a metaphor for being trapped in a situation, whether it’s marriage, political conditions or poverty and a visual representation of control and restricting someone’s freedom.

Gunesekera is a wonderful storyteller, both in the way that he vividly describes the environment, and his slow, subtle construction of the story of two boys’ lives. Suncatcher is a story of friendship and boyhood, but also one of a country in flux and how it affects those caught up in it.