Just a teardrop off the southernmost tip of India, the island nation of Sri Lanka has always existed in the shadow of its larger neighbor. So it's no surprise that Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera has remained a somewhat peripheral figure as American readers discovered Indian fiction during the past year, a trend culminating in the runaway bestsellerdom of Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things." In Max Vadukul's group photo of contemporary Indian authors in a recent special issue of the New Yorker, Gunesekera stands somewhat uncomfortably on the edge.
Furthermore, Gunesekera's new novel, "The Sandglass," is a story that's as much about London (where Gunesekera now lives) as it is about Sri Lanka. The year is 1993, and Prins Ducal, a middle-aged Sri Lankan hotel entrepreneur, arrives for the funeral of his mother, Pearl, who left Sri Lanka nearly 40 years before, after the death of her husband, Jason. In London, Pearl was befriended by Chip, the book's self-effacing narrator, a rootless Sri Lankan. As they prepare for the funeral service, Prins and Chip try to make sense of the Ducals' knotty family history, exchanging stories that Prins only dimly recalls and that Chip has been fed over the years by Pearl as she sat in her small, yellowing flat, knitting and watching old movies on TV.
As the novel unfolds, we learn of the Ducals' long-standing rivalry with the Vatunas family, and of old Esra Vatunas' shady business dealings, designed to prevent Jason Ducal from acquiring a local distillery. At the center of this web of stories is Jason's suspicious death in 1956 -- officially an accident -- a mystery that Prins is determined to solve. Meanwhile, Prins and Chip trace the fates of the various Ducal and Vatunas offspring, as they have drifted through the ruins of a Sri Lanka devastated by relentless civil war.
The melancholy that merely colored Gunesekera's earlier work, the story collection "Monkfish Moon" and the novel "Reef," threatens to overwhelm "The Sandglass," so preoccupied are Prins and the narrator with making sense of ultimately unknowable mysteries. Why did Jason die? What do Pearl's life and death mean? Where is "home" for the men and women who hover between a Sri Lanka that no longer exists and an England far from the fictional universe of Pearl's beloved Father Brown mysteries? "You know, nothing really fits," exclaims Prins. "It all pretends to fit, like someone has constructed it all for us to see exactly how the thing works, but really it is done to hide everything. To lead us completely in the wrong direction."
Gunesekera might have leavened these existential musings with a defter blend of comedy, as he did in the perfectly realized "Reef" -- his masterpiece to date. Still, "The Sandglass" remains a heartbreaking and exquisite novel, wise to both the tragedies and absurdities of the modern condition.