Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

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Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: Beyond fantastic. One of the most beautifully written books I've ever had the pleasure of reading.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224091459

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Winner: Commonwealth Writers Awards 2012 - Best Book

After the 1996 World Cup, dying sports journalist WG Karunasena decides that the world needs 'a half decent documentary on Sri Lankan cricket'. He sets out to make the said documentary, focusing on the mysterious Pradeep Mathew, the 1980's spin bowler he considers to have been his country's greatest ever player. But Mathew disappeared some time ago and everywhere Karunasena turns he is faced with more complications as he tries to find out more on what happened to him…

That plot summary doesn't do the book justice. I don't feel particularly guilty about that, as no plot summary on earth could even come close to doing this book justice. As far as literary fiction goes, this is both incredibly literary and amazingly enjoyable. At one stage while reading the novel I was trying to keep track of particularly quotable lines with the intention of inserting them into this review – I gave up on around page 60, by which point I'd hit triple figures. I'll throw in just the one extract, taken from almost the very start.

Why, you ask, has no one heard of our nation's greatest cricketer?

Here, in no particular order. Wrong place, wrong time, money and laziness. Politics, racism, power cuts and plain bad luck. If you are unwilling to follow me on the next God-knows-how-many-pages re-read the last two sentences. They are as good a summary as I can give from this side of the bottle.

I don't think I've ever fallen for a book so hard so quickly. Karuna's narration is utterly compelling – cynical, jaded, knowing he's nearing the grave, and yet stubbornly determined to complete his self-imposed task and track down a cricketer who may be dead himself.

Fast forward a bit in the book and our reluctant hero gives his opinion on Foreman, Ali, football matches, the state of Sri Lanka, the futility of looking down on other countries, and a host of others. As he tries to track down Mathew, he runs into problems at every turn, and his English friend Jonny has major difficulties of his own. Lyrical, poetic, and always written with the same bittersweet quality which captured my attention right at the start, this is an absolute gem of a book.

Clearly, this is about the highest possible recommendation, whether or not you like cricket – WG explains enough of the sport's rules in his narration for you to pick up anything needed to enjoy it fully, I'd say, even if you know nothing about the sport. When I got to the end, the only issue I had with the book was that I wished it hadn't finished – but even then, I found the amazing companion website - a true labour of love.

I'll leave you with some more words of Karunatilaka's.

In thirty years, the world will not care about how I lived. But in hundred years, Bulgarians will still talk of Letchkov and how he expelled the mighty Germans from the 1994 World Cup with a simple header.

Sport can unite worlds, tear down walls, and transcend race, the past, and all probability.

Unlike life, sport matters.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: For more gorgeous, wonderful, lyrical literary fiction I absolutely loved We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

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Buy Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka at


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