"Funny Boy" by Shyam Selvadurai. William Morrow. 305 pages. $23 "Funny Boy," isn't funny "ha-ha." And it's more than funny "different"- it is intriguing, compelling and sometimes heart-breaking.
Shyam Selvadurai's first book transcends the trendy coming-of-age Gay Novel formula it at first seems to be (loose definition of Gay Novel: a novel in which the protagonist realizes he is gay and not much else). His story, set in a deeply divided Sri Lanka, encompasses individuality, family, politics and human rights, as seen through the eyes of a child.
Arjie is the boy his family fears will turn out "funny." He likes to play a wedding game with the girls instead of sweating out cricket matches with the boys, and when his shaken parents find out about his preference for wearing saris and playing the bride, he begins to see his difference.
He contemplates his status after his mother, for the first time, refuses to let him watch her dress up: "It was clear to me that I had done something wrong, but what it was I couldn't comprehend. ... As I listened to the sound of her voice, I realized that something had changed forever between us."
Because of his sensitivity and intelligence, adults approach him differently, too. He becomes a companion and ally to the grown-ups who dare to cross lines of class and race; first his Radha Aunty, whose love for a Sinhalese man angers her Tamil family; and then his mother, who has never gotten over a lover of another ethnicity, a Burgher.
Soon these tensions become more than a matter of family pride and prejudice; the entire country is on edge as ethnic violence spreads. The struggle is apparent in Arjie's school, his father's hotel business and the community. Arjie's Tamil family is increasingly in danger as the government rigs an election and persecution of Tamils grows.
As Arjie sheds his innocence and recognizes the cruelties of the world, Selvadurai's story becomes richer and more profound, and his narrator matures into a chronicler of almost unbearable anguish and loss by book's end.
Selvadurai's prose captures reality rather than embroidering it. With precise and natural details, he vividly constructs the children's power games and the adults' desperate discussions. He weds emotional resonance to a tale of hateful tyranny, related with the clarity of a news story. He also avoids the trap of making Sri Lanka's complex problems black-and-white; even the Tamils he writes about have mixed feelings about the violent lengths to which their own people will go.
Through it all, Arjie comes to terms with his identity, from his initial revulsion at his first sexual experience, a "dreadful act" and "crime" for which he needs absolution, to his acceptance of love and his realization that even it exists under a shadow, because his lover is Sinhalese. Such bittersweet moments make "Funny Boy" a postcard not just from Sri Lanka, but from the mind and heart.
Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, The Miami Herald, Premiere, bOING bOING, Indie File, The Charlotte Observer and The Charlotte Poetry Review.
Pub date 3/24/96