The Sandglass


Author: Romesh Gunesekera

Finished on: 6 August 2016

Where did I get this book: I have a vague recollection of buying this book in a train station. Possibly York. From a big jumble sale-style stall on a concourse. Many years ago.

For time immemorial, artists, philosophers and the rest of us, have grappled with the question: what is the meaning of life? Indeed, in the name of researching this post, I have become hugely distracted reading the Wikipedia page ‘What is the meaning of life?’ (which I can highly recommend, and quite frankly feels like the highest pinnacle of the internet.) Answers to this, possibly the biggest question there is, include: to seek wisdom, to do good, to serve God and to ‘be excellent to each other’. There’s never been anything approaching a consensus, so we keep on asking.

Romesh Gunesekera is the latest (to me) person to explore this question. The Sandglass is a story full of people searching for meaning in their life, or trying to create a legacy to live on after they die.

Essentially, the plot revolves around the relationships between various members of two rival families in Sri Lanka. But the story is told piece by piece through back and forth chronology, and gradual revelations. Gunesekera’s writing style is reflective and gentle, and while the story includes some dramatic elements, the tone is never so. In fact, I would go so far as to say it borders on naval gazing for much of the book. An extract:

I felt the need for the future to hold something. Anything. For it to hold. For it not to give way completely. We need to believe that things will work out, that tonight we will sleep and tomorrow wake up. And that tomorrow we will remember today. What we did today, what happened yesterday – and have some faith in what will happen tomorrow.

It’s like Daniel Craig’s performance in Skyfall. You just want him to cheer up and get on with some action. Drink some martinis. Kiss some women. Kill some baddies. Stop sitting around with that furrowed, pensive brow.

Having said this, I do very much enjoy Gunesekera’s writing. He has a beautiful way with description.

Unlike other successful men, he grew thinner and bonier and sharper each day. It was as if he was reducing himself to a pair of barely honed jaws capable of tearing anything and everything to pieces.

One passage in particular that stuck with me describes the ability of a film, or indeed a book, to tell us a story in such a way that it becomes more real to us than events in our own lives.

The picture that emerged from the official papers was so consistent, Prins declared, that he felt he had been there. “More than been there, you know,” he insisted, “I feel I have seen the movie. I know the story from all the angles.”

What a brilliant way to explain why we care more about fiction than reality on occasion.

But overall, I am not patient enough to really enjoy a book like this. And it’s not long. A book of 278 pages should keep you gripped. And while this one was frequently beautiful, it is also frequently frustrating in its omphaloskepsis (literal meaning: the contemplation of one’s own naval to aid meditation. My new favourite word.)

The opposition between the two central families, the violence of their intertwined lives, and their longstanding inability to coexist harmoniously, acts as an extended metaphor for the bloody civil war that Sri Lanka went through for so many years. But I found this conceit was unsuccessful, as it wasn’t robust enough or sufficiently horrible.

I would like to read some Gunesekera with a bit more energy. The Sandglass reminded me somewhat of Sagan’s Those Without Shadows in its excessively contemplative tone. And I wonder if he has his equivalent of Bonjour Tristesse? A book where we get to see this lovely writing applied with some oomph.

I have glimpsed the meaning of my life on the top of a hill in the rain, reading Hilary Mantel, befriending an old lady with dementia, listening to Slash play his guitar, writing about gruesome murder, working at a food bank, sitting next to my husband on a long train ride, and watching my children eat broccoli that I have cooked for them. The meaning of life doesn’t lie in endlessly searching for the meaning of life.

If the sandglass is your finite time here running out, then for the love of god go and be fulfilled. Have fun; help others; find your thing, and do your thing. It is no doubt greatly more my weakness than Gunesekera’s, but I’m all for less thinking, more cracking on. So, whilst there is a lot to appreciate in this book, as a whole it was not my cup of tea.


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