by Shyam Selvadurai
Published by Tundra Books
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
April 13, 2014.
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea (2005) by Shyam Selvadurai (born in 1965) is not as good as his earlier Funny Boy (1994), which was, admittedly, a very tough act to follow.
Circa 1980, before the bloody Tamil/Sinhalese civil war broke out in Sri Lanka, fourteen-year-old Amrith De Alwi really does swim in the monsoon sea at Colombo’s Kinross Beach, though most of the novel is about his trying to play Desdemona in his all-boy high school’s bid for honors in an annual Shakespeare competition (in which he won an award the previous year as Juliet) and his own drama of jealousy over the attention of a visiting, heretofore unknown sixteen-year-old cousin from Toronto, Niresh.
Amrith’s parents are dead, and both of their families opposed their marriage. Neither side wants to have anything to do with the offspring of that match. He is raised by his mother’s close friend, “Auntie” Bundle. Her kindly husband “Uncle” Lucky raises Amrith as if he were his son, but Amrith is desperate for the affection of his bad-boy Canadian cousin. Aunt Bundle, very angry at Amrith’s mother’s brother for doing nothing (actually less than nothing, actively defrauding Amrith of the property that should be his inheritance), but she allows Niresh to stay with Amrith while in Sri Lanka.
Niresh and Mala have a mutual attraction that dismays Amrith, who comes to realize that he is different (gay) and that, as buddy-buddy as Niresh is with him, Niresh does not share the erotic feelings Amrith has for him.
The ending is not bad but not entirely satisfactory either. Niresh is as supportive as he can be to his newfound relative and friend. Though painting a rosy picture of life in Canada, Niresh makes most of it up, and it seems he has no more friends there than Amrith does in Sri Lanka (plus having rancorously divorced parents).
The novel won the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award for youth literature. It is about adolescents but does not seem at all written down for young readers. I could definitely identify with Amrith’s estrangement, the miracle of the sudden appearance of heretofore unknown cousins, and pain at his love not being within the emotional-erotic range of the object of his affections. With different local color (and explaining facets of Sinhalese culture to his cousin provides the raison d’être for much information), it resonates with my memories of adolescence, though it is painful to remember my own experiences of adolescence (with loving parents, a magical visit from previously unknown cousins…and no servants).
© 13 April 2014 by Stephen O. Murray