Cinnamon Gardens

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Set among the upper classes in the gracious, repressive world of 1920s Ceylon now Sri Lanka, Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai tells the intertwined stories of two extraordinary characters. Annalukshmi is a strong-willed young woman whose family is intent upon arranging a proper marriage for her, forcing her to question whether the independence she craves will doom her to a life without love and companionship. Her uncle Balendran, respectably married, struggles to suppress his secret desire for men. The sudden...
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Overview

Set among the upper classes in the gracious, repressive world of 1920s Ceylon now Sri Lanka, Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai tells the intertwined stories of two extraordinary characters. Annalukshmi is a strong-willed young woman whose family is intent upon arranging a proper marriage for her, forcing her to question whether the independence she craves will doom her to a life without love and companionship. Her uncle Balendran, respectably married, struggles to suppress his secret desire for men. The sudden arrival of a former lover, however, threatens to destroy his carefully constructed world. Both Annalukshmi and Balendran must determine if it is possible to pursue personal happiness without compromising the happiness of others. And both must draw on hidden reserves to resist the pressures of society and, even more crushing, the expectations they have placed on themselves.
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Editorial Reviews

Akash Kapur

Much like the upper-class Colombo world it portrays, Cinnamon Gardens is a polished and elegant work. Five years ago Shyam Selvadurai, a Sri Lankan-born writer who has spent the better part of the past two decades in Canada, published his well-received first novel, Funny Boy, a touching story about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality. Now he takes up the theme of high-society morality and hypocrisy in a second book that reads like a turn-of-the-century Sri Lankan novel of manners.

The trouble is that -- again, like the world it portrays -- Cinnamon Gardens is a little too polished. It lacks the idiosyncrasies and the unpredictability that would give it life. In aspiring to write a grand social epic, Selvadurai has put all the cultural and historical scaffolding a little too neatly in place. Historical incidents obviously gleaned from archival research feel artificially woven in; quotations from the Triukkural, an ancient work of Tamil philosophy, are copiously (and indiscriminately) cited, not only by several characters but also by the author, at the head of each chapter.

There is more than a little exoticization in the use of such elements, and like all exoticization, this case tends to emphasize the general at the expense of the particular. Selvadurai is so eager to tell the big social story that he neglects the human elements. Thus he grafts his characters' lives and relationships onto the age's great concerns; the results read like stereotypes. The Mudaliyar Navaratnam, the patriarch of the family at the center of the book, fights against universal suffrage and stifles his son Balendran's passion; he represents the old generation. Annalukshmi, the headstrong young teacher who rides a bicycle and refuses to marry, is the voice of women's emancipation. Mr. Jayaweera, the teacher from a rural village who fights for the rights of laborers, points up the economic exploitation of the colonial era. His conversations with the urbane and well-educated Annalukshmi -- he intrigues her with his talk of spirit possessions and snakebites in the country's interior -- sound like parodies of interclass interaction.

These characters and many more populate a sprawling narrative. They find love and friendship, and they struggle through conflicts with family members, social mores and their own repressed desires. Selvadurai holds his complicated story line together adeptly, but he is less successful at fleshing it out, at giving it emotional and psychological depth. When Balendran meets his long-lost lover, Richard, after 20 years (they had been forced apart when Balendran's father discovered the true nature of their relationship), the reunion is, all too characteristically, linguistically stilted and psychologically shallow. Balendran is "speechless" and "stung by [Richard's] words"; later, he feels "a terrible emptiness." "The sure apprehension of another mind / Is the mark of a God," runs another verse from the Triukkural (one that Selvadurai doesn't cite). It's the mark of a good novelist, too.

Curiously, as the veneer of respectability and propriety begins to wrinkle near the end of the book, Selvadurai's starched tone acquires a little life. Sentiments become less lachrymose, memories more vivid, and the conclusion, in contrast to the rest of the plot, is a surprise. There are traces in the final pages of the sensitivity and insight that distinguished Funny Boy. The effect is uplifting, but also a little disappointing. Selvadurai obviously has tremendous potential; we'll have to wait at least until his next book to see it fulfilled.
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
FYI: Born in Sri Lanka, Selvadurai lives in Toronto. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1927 Ceylon now Sri Lanka, Annalukshmi is an ambitious young teacher who longs to escape the traditions of arranged marriages and obedient wives. Balendran, her uncle, is also trapped, caught between duty to his father, the Mudaliyar, and his feelings for Richard, his former lover. In Selvadurai's restrained second novel following Funny Boy, Annalukshmi and Balendran must each come to terms with tradition and the sacrifices necessary to find the freedom they desperately desire. Selvadurai has created an insulated world of quiet racism and respectable oppression, where members of the Ceylonese upper class employ the same condescension as their British rulers. The story and characters are subtly written; there are no grand confrontations or earthshaking conclusions, which sometimes leaves the reader wanting more. What emerges is an introspective and unobtrusive look at a time and place unfamiliar to most readers. Recommended for large public libraries.--Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
YA-Colombo, Ceylon, in 1927 is a fragrant, lush, and beautiful city. For the Kandiah family-a mother and three young daughters living in a simple bungalow within the exclusive Cinnamon Gardens suburb-it is also politically complex, socially restricting, and heading irreversibly into an unknowable future. The eldest daughter, Annalukshmi, wants to be a teacher-but according to the rules of her time and society, she must relinquish that work if she marries. Negotiating the often-illusory pathways of romantic hopefulness, she ultimately makes some surprisingly mature choices. In counterpoint to Annalukshmi's story is that of her uncle; he loves his wife and his son but continues to struggle with his homosexuality and is thrown into crisis when his old lover arrives in Colombo. Through these characters, and others, the many segments of this diverse colonial society come to life. Readers see how beliefs, values, and personality characteristics determine people's lives and actions-and how those values, though exercised with the best of intentions, can be completely at odds with those of others. In his compassion for his characters, in the telling details of dress and architecture, in the dialogue that captures in a few words the essence of universal issues, Selvadurai shows the genius of a Jane Austen. Yet, with equal adroitness, he portrays the national and international, religious, political, historical, and cultural controversies of a much larger stage. Thoughtful teens can lose themselves in the romanticism of Sri Lanka's past and possibly gain a new understanding of their own time and place.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Anderson Tepper
In a breezy, yet old-fashioned style - part Vikram Seth, part Jane Austen - Sri Lankan author Shyam Selvadurai draws back the curtains on the 1920s private lives of an upper-crust suburb of Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), in this eagerly awaited second novel...Whether or not this South Asian Victorian-style novel is your cup of tea, it certainly is elaborately and gracefully drawn. Selvadurai deserves credit, as well, for his apt criticisms of a society still mired in anachronistic divisions and repression.
Time Out New York,
Daniel Rietz
Faultlessly elegant but familiar in its depiction of nostalgic regret and repressed desire, Cinnamon Gardens has a sepia-toned cover and an oddly sepia-toned style, yet it is also surprisingly light reading — it's unfettered by any attempt at highbrow heaviness.
The New York Times Book Review
Matthew Woods
Selvadourai embroiders this narrative with the kind of details that demonstrate a clear grasp of the subtleties that define romantic relationships...Every kind of union is in question as Selvadurai carefully explores the hazy boundaries between passion and repression, freedom and commitment, love and loneliness.
Paper Magazine
Michael J. Giltz
The second novel by Selvaurai is an old-fashioned page-turner with a literary heart—the perfect book for beachgoers who want melodrama that doesn't ignore the mind...[An] ambitiously plotted novel, which Selvaurai describes as his most personal effort yet.
The Advocate
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious, often moving, but ultimately unsatisfying second novel—set in the former Ceylon in the 1920s—by the Sri Lankan–born (now Canadian) author (Funny Boy, 1996). Selvadurai's frustratingly lax narrative juxtaposes two personal stories of oppression and lost opportunities that reflect the experience of their homeland ("a complex society with numerous horizontal and vertical divisions"), poised between colonization by the British and separate (and opposed) religious faiths (Hindu and Tamil) and independence movements. Annalukshmi Kandiah is a spirited young woman who prefers her teaching career in a mission school, and her friendships with a freethinking teacher and the latter's ward, to her father's plans to arrange her marriage. Annalukshmi's Uncle Balendran has been even more rigidly controlled by his father, the Mudliyar Navaratnam, a British-appointed official whose estate his son dutifully manages, 20 years after the Mudliyar had "rescued" Balendran from a homosexual relationship, steering him into marriage, and respectability. Selvadurai moves confidently among these major characters and their numerous relations and acquaintances, most of whom live in comparative luxury in the upper-class "Cinnamon Gardens" section of the city of Colombo—and are variously affected by the spirit of rebellion seeping slowly into their hitherto complacent, enclosed little world. But the story is mired in complicated, overextended exposition—its characters' byzantine personal, political, and religious affiliations require a good deal of sorting out—and we're rushed rather too summarily through an otherwise very moving double climax, in which Annalukshmi at lastunderstands and accepts the consequences of her defiance, and Balendran finds the courage to emerge from his father's domineering shadow. An impressive near-miss. Selvadurai appears to be still learning his craft, but his gifts for compassionate characterization and clarity of statement augur well, and suggest that this very interesting new writer may be on the verge of producing major work.
From the Publisher
“A near-miraculous capturing of life and love (both gay and straight), family tensions, political upheaval, labour unrest and feminism in the Ceylon of the 1920s.…”
Edmonton Journal

“Faultlessly elegant.…Selvadurai is expert in capturing the nuances of this particularly precious time and place.”
New York Times Book Review

“Subtle and deeply humane…Shyam Selvadurai has established himself firmly as an important chronicler of the complexities of social and cultural difference.…”
Books in Canada

“Selvadurai’s nuanced prose evokes the country’s dense climate and lush beauty.”
Toronto Star

“Richly rewarding.…This is a novel that deserves, and will surely gain, a wide readership.”
Sunday Times (U.K.)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780771079559
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
  • Publication date: 9/30/1998
  • Pages: 400

Meet the Author

Shyam Selvadurai was born in 1965 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He emigrated with his family to Canada at age nineteen in the wake of the 1983 riots. His first novel, Funny Boy, was awarded the Lambda Literary Award, was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association, and was published in seven countries. Selvadurai lives in Toronto, Canada.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The opening lines of the novel tell us that the heroine, Annalukshmi, sees clearly "the sea of her desires, but the raft fate had given her was so burdened with the mores of the world that she felt it would sink even in the shallowest of waters." What exactly is this "sea of her desires?'' Through what historical events, actions the character takes, her dreams and ambitions, and other characters, does the writer show us our heroine's "sea of desires?"

2. Which characters in Annalukshmi's life represent and enforce the mores that threaten to sink her raft? There might be some obvious choices, but one is not so obvious. A hint. Look at Chapter 17. But it is not just the mores of the world that threaten to sink Annalukshmi's raft. There are her own personal failings, her inner stumblings. In which moments in the novel do they come out?

3. When Balendran, the hero of the novel, was a student in London, he met and fell in love with Richard Howland. When the novel opens, Balendran is in his forties and married. He now describes his homosexuality as "regrettably irreversable." He is grateful to his father for "saving him from such a fate." What are the consolations that Balendran offers himself, the supports he clings to, as a way of justifying his choice to lead the life of a married man. Trace the events and characters that question his choice, that slowly reveal the emptiness of his consolations.

4. Balendran is a deeply flawed but ultimately noble character. What are his flaws? How does he achieve nobility?

5. The arrival of the Donoughmore Commission at the beginning of the novel leads to two bids for freedom-self-rule and women's rights. While Selvaduraihas great sympathy for these causes, he is critical of the organizations that champion them. What are his criticisms of the Ceylon Congress Party and the Womens' Franchise Union? By exposing their weaknesses, what model of statehood is Selvadurai proposing for his country?

6. Selvadurai in his acknowledgments thanks his American editor "for pointing out that a historical novel can be a metaphor for the present.'' What advice does he offer at the end of the novel to a modern-day Annalukshmi? What pitfalls does he warn of?

7. Selvadurai is himself Gay, the novel is Gay-positive. In this light can Selvadurai really be suggesting at the end of the novel that Gay men should marry or continue on in passionless marriages? What exactly is his message to our modern age regarding the decision Balendran makes at the end of the novel?

8. It is clear by the end of the novel that neither our hero nor heroine can "have it all." What would be your choices in the same situations, which dreams would you be willing to sacrifice?

9. Cinnamon Gardens is very much a character-driven novel. Which character would you want to be and why? Which character(s) do you think is/are the saddest? Why?

Copyright (c) 2000. Published by Harcourt, Inc.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2006

    Not that great...

    From reading the description, you would think this book would be great. However, I couldn't make it past the first 50 pages without being bored. I didn't have any motivation to finish this book. Within those pages, there was nothing to catch the readers attention to want you to read more. This book may have the potential to be a great book, if you can make it past the first 50 pages.

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