Thursday, 10 March 2011

Review of "The Fluorescent Jacket" by Roshi Fernando

There are several moments in Homesick , Fernando's composite novel in which this story was orginally published, where tables turn. This is what happens right at the start of "The Fluorescent Jacket". Sri Lankan immigrant Kumar is a lodger-under-sufferance at his cousin Shamini’s home where she lives with her two young daughters. The story opens with a scene of the girls laughing at his English pronunciation. Using third person in the "novel", Fernando shows herself to be mistress of how to take your readers with you as you shift viewpoint between characters. Here we are made to slide almost imperceptively from sympathy for Kumar's saying that it “sims” to rain, to neutrality when he notices Lolly, still then only “the younger [one]”, to a pivotal, sickening point where we see the eight-year old through his eyes, “ribbons... a fringe which covers one eye”. Then the direction of the gaze is all Kumar’s as he homes in on her, “He chooses the smaller one, her one good eye, and he repeats, ‘It seems like it rains every day.’” But then power has leaked from him again once he's back out in London’s overground network with only Shamini’s scribbled directions to a possible work lead. As with Fernando’s characters throughout Homesick, Kumar’s focus is always on the “brown” faces in a crowd, and now he selects an immigrant like himself, “an African”, as he did Lolly, to save him, this time from getting utterly lost between Croyden and New Cross. He seems to hope the jacket, given to him when he accidentally gets another job and which is “yellowy-green, the colour of too-ripe limes”, may mark the start of his assimilation into Britain, “He doesn’t find the building, but he finds someone who wants him.” The jacket’s neon nylon is a passport to a council workteam in the local park except he doesn’t actually get paid, only mimes the ritual of belonging, because Sinhala-speaking Kumar lacks the “magic trick” of English which would “convert... callouses into... notes and coins”. While he defaults on housekeeping, stops washing and starts drinking, Shamini tolerates him only because his father paid for her passage over here. Kumar, meanwhile, is enjoying his new role, “digging earth”. Neighbourhood girls have been going missing, though, and Kumar digs one up. The fluorescent jacket doesn’t protect him in the way he’d hoped: from disrespect, poverty, his own spinelessness; from arrest. The lime colour, rather, singles him out, makes him obvious, were he only to realise, just as his natural colour does.

The story strains a little towards the end where it stretches the composite novel’s family sinews too far over the years. Also in a rare drop of the reins, Fernando has Kumar’s blunted sensibility leap into the head of a prison tutor we care nothing about. The subject of child abuse is often badly treated in short stories but this one carries it off, mainly by making it more than a tale of a single injustice. Instead, it is a tale of debt, dislocation, penance and belonging as well as damage.

"The Fluorescent Jacket" by Roshi Fernando is NOW shortlisted for The EFG Sunday Times Short Story Award, worth £30,000; winner chosen during April at the Oxford Literary Festival.

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