Funny Boy: A Novel in Six Stories

Funny Boy: A Novel in Six Stories

by Shyam Selvadurai
In this remarkable debut novel, a boy’s bittersweet passage to maturity and sexual awakening is set against escalating political tensions in Sri Lanka, during the seven years leading up to the 1983 riots. Arjie Chelvaratnam is a Tamil boy growing up in an extended family in Colombo. It is through his eyes that the story unfolds and we meet a delightful,


In this remarkable debut novel, a boy’s bittersweet passage to maturity and sexual awakening is set against escalating political tensions in Sri Lanka, during the seven years leading up to the 1983 riots. Arjie Chelvaratnam is a Tamil boy growing up in an extended family in Colombo. It is through his eyes that the story unfolds and we meet a delightful, sometimes eccentric cast of characters. Arjie’s journey from the luminous simplicity of childhood days into the more intricately shaded world of adults – with its secrets, its injustices, and its capacity for violence – is a memorable one, as time and time again the true longings of the human heart are held against the way things are.

Editorial Reviews

A. Scott Cardwell

Shyam Selvadurai, a native Sri Lankan, weaves a spider web of a narrative in Funny Boy, a delicate yet potent first novel that concerns itself with love, politics, gender, race, sexuality and terrorism. While Selvadurai's gestures are grand, his execution is disarmingly modest. His narrator is Arjie Chelvaratnam, a Tamil boy from Columbo. Arjie's fresh, exuberant voice carries us along from idyllic Sundays when his ripe imagination wins him the honor of playing the main character in his female cousins' game called bride-bride -- "by the transfiguration I saw taking place in Janaki's cracked full-length mirror ... I was able to ascend to another, more brilliant, more beautiful self" -- to the hellish Sinhalese-Tamil riots of 1983, when he and his family sleep in their shoes so they can flee the fire and hate when it knocks at their door.

Although we follow young Arjie through almost a decade of his life and witness his awakening homosexuality, this book is, happily, much more than a coming-of age (and coming out) novel. Selvadurai's rich prose style, gently spiced with humor, captures the political as well as the personal in Arjie's world. Whether crowning an upstart cousin "Her Fatness" or jeering the regime -- "they have witnesses for everything these days" -- self-indulgence never tiptoes in. All this is contained in a series of six chapters, each a complete episode in Arjie's life. But clearly, the only reason any of this works is Selvadurai's shrewd storytelling -- he creates stories fat with all the good stuff: characters, plot and action. Funny Boy is a very promising debut. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in Sri Lanka, this poignant coming-of-age novel charts a boy's loss of innocence as he grapples with family conflict, political realities and his homosexuality. At seven, narrator Arjun Chelvaratnam hates sports and enjoys wearing his aunt's jewelry and playing the role of bride in imaginary weddings; yet his playmates' taunts of "girlie-boy'' and "faggot'' don't seem all that different from the monickers that attach to other children (e.g., "fatty-boom-boom'' and "Diggy-Nose''). But when Arjun enters his teens, his worried father, a wealthy hotelier, sends him to a strict private academy, hoping it will force his son "to become a man.'' Instead, Arjun, rebelling against a sadistic principal, strikes up an intense friendship with a fellow renegade pupil, Shehan, who is rumored to be gay. After their first sexual encounter. Arjun's immediate feelings are anger and guilt, but he gradually comes to accept his sexuality and his love for Shehan. The story is shot through with the tensions and bloody violence between Sri Lanka's Buddhist Sinhalese majority and its Hindu Tamil minority. In loving Shehan, a Sinhalese, Arjun, who is Tamil, breaks two taboos. Retribution follows, and in 1983 Arjun and his family migrate to Canada as penniless refugees. With deft humor and a keen eye, Selvadurai, who was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Toronto, captures his protagonist's difficult passage into his own identity-of which his homosexuality is just one component. And it is with deep, wistful feeling that he ties that story to larger themes of family and country.
Kirkus Reviews
A marvelous first novel, about growing up gay in Sri Lanka, that displays a precociously assured command of structure, pace, and tone.

Selvadurai's protagonist and narrator is Arjun ("Arjie") Chelvaratnam, the second son of a prosperous Tamil family who cast a common disapproving eye on Arjie's avoidance of other boys and their games, and on his disturbing preference for playing "bride- bride" with the neighborhood girls and trying on his favorite aunt's clothing and makeup. Arjie's emotional passage—through both a fractious boyhood and a culture marked by ethnic conflict and recurring violence—is charted in a series of elaborately developed extended episodes that Selvadurai handles with an almost casual mastery. Such episodes include Arjie's hilarious confrontation with a stentorian playmate and rival (whom he mockingly titles "Her Fatness"); his fascinated observation of a young aunt's foredoomed flirtation with a young man their family can't accept; his incipient crush on a handsome young family employee; and eventually his experiences at a Dickensian boarding school (which, Arjie's father had proclaimed, "will force you to become a man"), where he discovers both sex and the courage to defy the abuses practiced by those who wield arbitrary power ("How was it that some people got to decide what was correct or not, just or unjust?"). Selvadurai can make family squabbles resonate with almost epic force and weight, and his beautifully manipulated plot powerfully expresses the manifold connections among familial, political, and sexual identity and destiny. Arjie himself is only the most appealing of a dozen or more generously observed and vividly rendered characters. And, almost as an incidental bonus, the novel delicately, knowingly records the subtlest permutations of mistrust and contention among Sri Lanka's Sinhalese (Buddhist) and Tamil (Hindu) populace.

First-rate fiction, from a brilliant new writer whose next book cannot arrive here quickly enough. The Toronto-based Selvadurai has already won the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award for 1994.

Product Details

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
Publication date:

What People are saying about this

Amitav Ghosh
An extraordinarily powerful, deeply moving novel.
Andrew Holleran
Completely fascinating, this touching novel of a childhood in Sir Lanka juxtaposes innocence and knowledge, love and hatred, in an unforgettable evocation of what family Samioi means.
Alberto Manguel
A glittering and wise novel. Funny Boy keeps repeating with quiet conviction that the human condition can, in spite of everything, be joyful. You are not alone, it says to the reader.

Meet the Author

Shyam Selvadurai was born in 1965 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He came to Canada with his family at the age of nineteen. He has studied creative writing and theatre, and has a B.F.A. from York University.

Funny Boy, his first novel, was published to immediate acclaim in 1994, was a national bestseller, and won the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award and, in the U.S., The Lambda Literary Award, and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association. Cinnamon Gardens, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Trillium Award. It has been published in the U.S., the U.K., India, and numerous countries in Europe.

Shyam Selvadurai lives in Toronto.

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