Review: Noontide Toll

May 29, 2014
Author:Author : Romesh Gunesekera
Publisher: Penguin India
Publish Year : 2014
ISBN : 9788172344870
Rating: ★★★★☆
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“When we first heard the war was over, we believed a line could be drawn between the mistakes of the past and the promise of the future. One was the place you had been, the other was the place you were going to. We believed there was no need for the two 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.”Romesh Gunesekera, Noontide Toll

Noontide Toll is a book with an ambition which has a ticking time clock- to make an effort to capture the present uncertainty of a post-war Sri Lanka before development and the bright promises of future wash over it with memories obscured by rose-tinted glasses. Using the note perfect narrative device of a driver on hire taking his passengers all over the island for various purposes, the reader discovers a country which is not unlike a phoenix. The ashes may still be smouldering, the smell of death still lingers, but the instinct of human survival rises like a new-born, uncertain of its future but full of renewed hope and energy. Vasantha, the driver, both of the car and our reading journey, navigates us through stories of various men and women with their dreams and memories, weaving an interesting tale of war and the impact it has on all, even ones unconnected to it.

The book can be interpreted as both a series of connected short stories and a larger novel with a single protagonist and his experiences around the island, all the stories completing within themselves as well as a single unit. Be it Vasantha driving a man and his disinterested son to a house full of the man’s childhood memories clouded with nostalgia or meeting a woman full of intrigue and secrets – Miss Saraswati, who comes from “…somewhere dark and hungry and deep. Somewhere beyond the blackness at the end of the garden, where even the moonlight shrank back”, all his journeys are fleeting and so are the stories. We never know these people, never understand them, we see them through Vasantha’s eyes, understand what he does, sometimes more, sometimes less, we see the world as he sees it – with the disappointments, horrors and a gentle, rising hope and we move on to another story. Vasantha is not a part of the stories, he is an observer. But his own story comes out in bits and pieces, his childhood, his war time experiences, the cynicism growing inside him.

Vasantha makes a curious protagonist. Born in impoverished circumstances, it is apparent his education has remained wanting. Yet the man reads TIME and watches BBC World. It can be surmised that he is an autodidact spurred by eagerness to be a part of the world around him and be more aware of it. He is definitely a challenge to a stereotype. However, the reader often finds Vasantha to be a more arresting storyline than the plot going around him and can not help but wish that his life was better explored. He is a highly introspective man given to highly metaphorical thoughts and slight sarcasms, but his thoughts, as is the book, are laced with undercurrents of sadness and grief of what the country, and possible he himself, has had to go through.

Noontide Toll is a book of a war seen through lenses of a hopeful future. People choose to talk and remember those portions they wish to remember and the rest is smoothed over by silences of both memories and voices. Noontide Toll is an interesting, important and highly readable book of a country’s relationship with a recent war and how much must be held and how much must be let go. As a story of a country’s present and as a keepsake of a time which will remain very fleeting, it is highly recommended.

To read more on the author, check out the author’s interview in The New Yorker.

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