Funny Boy

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Overview

Funny Boy is the debut of an extraordinary new voice in literary fiction. Set in Sri Lanka, it is a haunting novel about a boy growing up within an extended upper-middle-class family. Shyam Selvadurai subtly juxtaposes a boy's passage to adolescence and maturity with the upheavals of growing ethnic tension and civil unrest. Arjie, the protagonist, is "funny": He likes to wear a sari and play with girls - and he hates sports. His bittersweet journey from the luminous simplicity of childhood days into the more ...
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Overview

Funny Boy is the debut of an extraordinary new voice in literary fiction. Set in Sri Lanka, it is a haunting novel about a boy growing up within an extended upper-middle-class family. Shyam Selvadurai subtly juxtaposes a boy's passage to adolescence and maturity with the upheavals of growing ethnic tension and civil unrest. Arjie, the protagonist, is "funny": He likes to wear a sari and play with girls - and he hates sports. His bittersweet journey from the luminous simplicity of childhood days into the more intricately shaded world of adults - with its secrets, its ultimate capacity for violence and injustice - is beautifully rendered. And it is through Arjie's eyes that we meet a delightful, sometimes eccentric, cast of characters. Among them: Arjie's imposing grandmother, whose ideas of propriety are tested when one of her daughters returns from America; a young cousin, "Her Fatness," who disturbs the natural order of things in a childhood game of bride-bride; a journalist from Jaffna whose relationship from long ago with Arjie's mother now leads all three of them into dangerous and unfamiliar territory; Arjie's father, distant, unmoving, whose sense of honor is tried by events not in his control; Shehan, the handsome and enigmatic boy, an outsider at school like Arjie, through whom Arjie discovers his own homosexuality and capacity for love. Like E. M. Forster in Howards End, Selvadurai shows how the intimate workings of a family can represent and reflect a larger political context. Selvadurai's prose is spare, vivid, gently humorous, and full of enormous compassion and insight. Funny Boy is a remarkable novel.

This haunting novel about a boy growing up within an extended upper-middle-class family in Sri Lanka employs gentle humor and an uncommon compassion and insight into human nature. Arjie's understanding of the world around him--and his own gay identity--is placed against the backdrop of growing racial tension and civil unrest. "Selvadurai has a genius for touching a nerve with a feather-like touch."--Literary Review (England)

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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.
Janet St. John
Although this falls into the crowded coming-of-age category, Selvadurai adds the foreign, funny, and unusual in a novel that is as personal as it is political. While growing up in Sri Lanka amid Tamil and Sinhalese conflicts, Arjie, a young boy who likes to play with dolls and girls, observes the social constraints abhorred and perpetuated within his own family and in society at large. Through the details of family life, the intimacies and exchanges, Selvadurai, much like E. M. Forster, reveals truths subtly, with poignancy and grace. Selvadurai has created an endearing character in Arjie, an impish boy who is always in trouble with his rigid parents, yet gains the confidence of "outsiders," those attempting to rebel against foolish social injustices: an aunt almost ready to reject family and social pressure by marrying a Sinhalese man; a schoolboy who is sexually abused by the head prefect and who wants to disclose his own homosexuality. Arjie's witnessing of prejudice and violence shatters his security by degrees, awakening him to the acceptance of his own gay identity and his isolation from both his family and conventional society.
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.

From the Publisher
“Shyam Selvadurai has brought back from his Sri Lankan childhood 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 I understand you. I was there. I remember.”
–Alberto Manguel

“He spins a subtle web that holds readers captive.…”
Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“A powerful and beautifully written novel.…”
Literary Review (U.K.)

“Lyrical, moving, and deeply perceptive. This isn’t the first coming-of-age story ever written, but I doubt there’s been one quite like it.”
Halifax Chronicle-Herald

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688145958
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/1/1996
  • Edition description: 1st U.S. ed
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.89 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Shyam Selvadurai was born in 1965 in Sri Lanka. Funny Boy, his first novel, was published in 1994. It won the prestigious Lambda Literary Award and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association. Cinnamon Gardens, his second novel, was published in 1998 and was shortlisted for the Trillium Award.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2008

    Coming to Terms in Sri Lanka's Civil War struggle

    Arjie is a 'funny boy' who prefers dressing as a girl. This novel follows the life of his family through Arjie's eyes as he struggles to come to terms both with his own homosexuality and with the racism of the society in which he lives. In the north of Sri Lanka there's a war going on between the army and the Tamil Tigers, and gradually it begins to encroach on the family's comfortable life. Sporadic acts of violence flare into full-scale riots and lead, ultimately, to tragedy.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2008

    Great Book

    Funny Boy is a very moving novel about Shyam Selvadurai growing up in Sri Lanka. Selvaduri was born into a Tamil family, but was exposed to both the Sinhalese and the Tamil culture. It was difficult for his family to practice both lifestyles because there was a great controversy going on between the two societies. The entire novel is divided between important chapters of Selvaduri¿s life. It begins with stories when Arjie(his childhood name), his siblings, and cousins would visit their grandparents for ¿spend-the-days.¿ Later, it progressed to stories of his aunt¿s visits, his mother¿s affair, and his school days. Throughout the novel, Arjie is accused of being ¿Funny¿(gay) by his family because of his famine characteristics. Because he is still growing up, he is not sure of his sexual identity, but when he enters a new school he learns a lot about himself. At this school he meets a particular individual who changed his life and helps Arjie discover who he truly is. This book is touching and a great read. I would recommend it to all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2008

    Wonderful

    A gay fiction book that you can't put down, and is for everyone to read! A very touching and powerful story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2000

    Transcends Genre

    Great book--beautiful, touching, powerful. Great by any measure--better than most self-consciously 'gay fiction,' this is profound human drama against a powerful historical backdrop.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2000

    I am a Funny Boy Too

    I always wonder if the people who write these reviews are friends of the author. Trust me--this is a fantastic read, and I don't know anyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2000

    One of the Best

    A beautiful story of a personal journey and a wonderful trip into the people and politics of Sri Lanka. One of the best gay fiction books I have ever read - will touch, move and inform you. Comparable to 'The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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