August 14, 2012

The Legend of Pradeep Mathew

I heard about THE LEGEND OF PRADEEP MATHEW by Shehan Karunatilaka when it was announced as a pick for the Bookrageous book club. I enjoyed the book and am glad it was selected, because I doubt that I would have considered reading it otherwise. Both the subject matter and the style are potentially off-putting, which makes this a tricky novel to describe and recommend.

THE LEGEND OF PRADEEP MATHEW is ostensibly about the world of professional cricket. Specifically, the story concerns a retired Sri Lankan sportswriter searching for a cricket player -- possibly the best his country has ever produced -- who mysteriously vanished after a few incredible games. There's a ton of cricket talk in the book, including recaps of real matches and explanations of terminology. It's probably possible for a determined reader to learn quite a bit about cricket by paying close attention to the descriptions and hand-drawn diagrams, but the information didn't really stick in my mind, and I allowed myself to read on without understanding everything once I figured out that it didn't affect my comprehension of the plot.

You see, the book turns out to be at least as much about the narrator as about the cricket player he's trying to find. W.G. Karunasena was once an award-winning sportswriter, but alcoholism has destroyed his career, his health, and his relationship with his son. At the beginning of the book, his doctor says that if he keeps drinking, it's going to kill him. W.G. decides that with the time he has left, he wants to rescue cricketer Pradeep Mathew from obscurity, a goal that only his statistics-obsessed best friend can understand. In the rambling course of the search, W.G tells the reader about his own life and about Sri Lankan culture and politics, and he explores how all of these are tied up in cricket.

W.G. is a wonderful, complicated character. Sometimes it's fun and hilarious to spend time with him, and other times it's a painful experience. The book is full of other great, strange, and larger-than-life characters, including some real cricket personalities. I found W.G.'s story compelling, and I wanted to see him both turn his life around and succeed in his quest.

As a narrator, W.G. is disorganized, by his own admission. The story unfolds in many short sections, some that advance the plot (not always chronologically) and some with information about cricket. Overall, the book's style worked for me, but I imagine it would be irritating to some readers.

After reading, I enjoyed listening to the Bookrageous book club discussion, which includes spoilers.

Note that outside the United States, the book is published with the title CHINAMAN. As explained in the story, this is a cricket term referring to a bowling style, but the inappropriate ethnic designation is also part of the intended connotation. Racism plays a role in the book, and in Sri Lanka's history.

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