Home / Books / Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Author Shehan Karunatilaka won the 2022 Booker prize for his second book Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and this would have led to increased recognition and readership. We read this book and published our review of the same here at Thinkerviews.

Since we enjoyed the writing, we decided to read his other works and found his first published novel Chinaman. The author hails from Sri Lanka and in this book he explores a journey of a legendary cricketer that very well can be just that – a legend.

Book Title : Chinaman
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
Author :
Published by : Vintage Books ( 1 October 2011)
# of Pages : 395 (Paperback) 418; 1136 KB (Kindle EBook) 416 (Hardcover) 118 Minutes (Audiobook)
Purchase Link(s) :

The book won the 2022 Booker Prize and has been widely praised for its storytelling and powerful narrative. Recently, I had a chance to read this book, and here are our thoughts on this book on behalf of Team Thinkerviews.

Book Cover:

Let us take a look at the cover page of this book.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

As you can see this is a cover page of the first anniversary edition published by Penguin. It is a simple, minimalistic cover page with the author’s name, credentials and title of the book spelt out in black.

The central icon is a map of the human hand, with lines that could foretell our destinies. You can also see the outline of a bowling figure playing with a little red ball. Chinaman is a type of spin bowl in cricket and with that in view the cover page does go well with the central thread of the story within….

As you will see through this article, there are quite a few cover page design changes as the book has been re-published, all including a bowler and his art in some way, shape or form.

Storyline:

Wije Gamini Karunasena has been a passionate fan of cricket all his life. Now he is at the end of this journey as alcohol abuse has ruined his liver. And so he ends up the last months of his life writing a story about what he believes was the greatest spin bowler of all time – Pradeep Mathew.

Hi friend Ari is his ally in the quest. Their journey starts with a wedding reception dinner discussion about creating a perfect cricket team and leads to a contract for script writing for documentary films about Sri Lankan cricket. They meet multiple coaches who claim to have taught this bowler all his actions. By all accounts, Pradeep Mathew could imitate any other bowler i.e., he could bowl left or right handed, fast or slow, pace or spin.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Too good to believe? In some places, it does. But the author carries on with a patchwork of diagrams, photos, family accounts, historical articles featuring Sri Lankan cricket team through their various matches in the nineties and anecdotes from variety of people. We also meet Jonny Gilhooley, Kugrajah and some other places and characters that you may trace back to Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

While Wije struggles with his alcoholism, the story does come together, but not without deaths, murders and tragedies. Sri Lanka wins the Cricket World Cup in 1996 and then loses form. We also see the partisan selection committees, match fixing thugs and fickle nature of fame and success without self-discipline and some amount of luck.

When Wije passes on, his wife and friends read through his manuscript. But it is his son Garfield who decides to continue the search and attempt to finish what his father started?

Will he succeed in his search? Did Pradeep Mathew ever exist?

Views and Reviews:

Let me say firstly that this book is cleverly constructed. Now if you are a reader who grew up in the Indian subcontinent, the story will feel very familiar to you. The first phase of the book takes place around the time of Sri Lanka’s rise in the international cricket and their winning the 1996 World Cup.

But the author starts the journey of our magical spin bowler a few years before that, as he appears in the landmark matches that Sri Lanka played against established teams including England, New Zealand, West Indies and Australia.

We get the nitty-gritty of each game, passionate analysis of the line-ups, the fix-ups, the pressures, the sledging – in short, the good and the bad and the ugly facets of the game, including some historical fun facts:

In cricket’s class-conscious days, the rich played for love and called themselves amateurs; the working class played for money and were known disparagingly as amateurs.

But what if you are not an avid fan? The author gives us clever, brief explanations of terms like wicket and the book also contains simple sketches to show how a ball travels across the pitch. The book is dedicated to a bowler who can create magic with flick of a finger or twist of a wrist and doesn’t always get his due:

Bowlers have always had the wrong end of the stump. The job that no one wanted. All innovations over the last century from the helmet to the bouncer rule have conspired to favour batsman. What’s harder?? To hit a ball? Or to make someone else miss one?

Then there are the blurry, black and white images, landing the mystery an air of – yes, this actually happened, almost with a conspiracy theory flavour to the book. And this works well until end of part three. I almost thought that the book could have ended just as well there. The last over is readable and it does create an interesting end for the book in this segment including giving the reader again that ‘this is a true story based on my life’ moments, some of it also doesn’t aid to the overall effect of the rest of the narrative.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Wije is the main character and the narrator, so he is on the stage a lot. And you would feel you know him. In fact, most of them represent the sport loving population of any country who remember the statistics, who glory over the wins and agonise over the losses. For Wije, cricket is not just sport. It is something that gives meaning to his life:

Left arm spinners cannot unclog your drains, teach your children or cure you of disease. But once in a while, the very best of them will bowl a ball that will bring an entire nation to its feet. And while there may be no practical use in that, there is most certainly value.

How much love does one need in a lifetime? Is there a quantity of brain space that is allocated to love? And for those of us who have loved less, does this space become occupied by something else? Like cricket, or religion, perhaps?

And while cricket is front and centre, there is Sri Lanka in the background and the lives being lived and torn apart due to separatist violence.

You can see the seeds of the author’s second book in this one, in some characters, in places where he talks about spirits roaming the earth, Wije’s alcoholism and his views on how the differences are not worth the misery:

Differences between Sinhalese and Tamil? The truth is, whatever the differences there may be, they are not large enough to burn down libraries, burn up banks, or send children onto minefields. They are not significant enough to waste hundreds of months firing millions of bullets into thousands of bodies.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka | Book Review

This book is layered, cleverly written with characters and tracks travelling back and forth. It is enjoyable not only as a mystery chasing an elusive figure in past but as a catalogue of the political and cultural climate of the country during these times. The author also uses clever nicknames for recognisable public figures and also include snippets like below which I am sure you would have heard somewhere:

I believe the history of the world can be explained by climate. Year-round sunshine makes you want to sit under trees or dance in loincloths. Bitter winters make you want to invent heaters and guns and sail to warmer climes and scalp natives. The comfortable get docile, the uncomfortable get busy.

The book does touch on the philosophical questions about whether God exists, why some lives turn out a certain way and whether there is any meaning to existence? Are children destined to carry on the legacy and journeys their parents started?

Summary:

A fictional account of an elusive bowler as he reinvents Sri Lankan international cricket, a story of a genius gone rogue and a search for what gives our lives a meaning… all in one package.

ThinkerViews Rating:

Around 8 stars out of 10.

Quick Purchase Links:

Over To You:

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