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.
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 passagethrough both a fractious boyhood and a culture marked by ethnic conflict and recurring violenceis 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.