In my last post, I wrote about how swimming in lakes is, for me, an integral part of summer.
So is reading.
I remember, as a kid, trudging with my friends to the local library under the hot sun. Often we didn’t bother wearing shoes. It was only a five-minute walk. The pavement was hot and we had to cross a gravel schoolyard, but as the soles of our feet hardened over the summer we didn’t mind too much.
Soon came that wonderful moment when we entered the library and were enveloped by the coolness of air conditioning. Surrendering our heavy armloads of books at the Returns desk, we were free to explore the shelves. By age eleven or twelve, I was finished with children’s or teen’s books (I don’t remember YA being the large genre it is today), and was learning a lot about the illicit parts of adult life from fiction. My friends and I still loved the thrills of ghost stories, though, and if we were planning one of our backyard tent sleepovers we always checked out some horror books.
I just finished reading Funny Boy, though this highly-acclaimed debut novel by Shyam Selvadurai was published in 1994. Selvadurai’s book is set in his native country of Sri Lanka and covers the seven years leading up to the 1983 riots between the Singalese and Tamil populations.
Selvadurai’s writing style immediately reminded me of Margaret Laurence’s. Why should this be? Most of Laurence’s books are set in her fictional Manitoba town of Manawaka. It was her book of interconnected stories, A Bird in the House, that I thought of when I was reading Funny Boy. Both books are structured as a group of self-contained stories that go together to form a larger whole. Laurence’s book moves back and forth in time, with a different character (usually not the young narrator, Vanessa) being the focus of each story. In contrast, the six stories that comprise Funny Boy do, together, form a novel that moves forward chronologically, telling Arjun (Arjie) Chelvaratnam’s story from the time he is seven until he is fourteen.
The similarity between the two books goes deeper than structure. Both authors write with the same graceful, deceptively simple style. Both capture the child’s point of view vividly, with great compassion. Both describe sad (or horrific) events but at the same time make us believe in the redeeming parts of being human: intimacy, family ties, and an appreciation of life’s sensual beauty.
Both books have narrators who, as children, were protected from reality by their imaginations and their retreat into the world of books. As they mature, their fantasies and families can no longer hide from them a realization of the terrible injustices and cruelty that exist in the world. Arjie sees people murdered in atrocious ways; his grandparents are killed by the mob, burned alive when the mob sets their car on fire, a commonplace method of killing Tamils. Arjie’s family home is burned down and its contents are stolen or destroyed.
Vanessa sees the physical and psychological damage inflicted on her extended family by the two World Wars and the Depression. Both Arjie and Vanessa learn that morality is seldom black-and-white; Arjie’s mother, a respectable, conventional woman, has an affair with a childhood sweetheart, and Vanessa’s beloved Uncle Dan, who brings so much enjoyment to the family with his jokes and his singing, is considered a drunk and a wastrel by Vanessa’s hard-working grandfather.
Both Laurence and Selvadurai are fearless in writing about the ambiguity of sexual morality and the difficult choices people make about sexual relationships. (Laurence’s novel The Diviners was frequently banned from high school courses because of its sexual content.) In Funny Boy, Arjie’s increasing awareness of his country’s corruption and violence is paralleled by his gradual understanding of his own sexuality.
Arjie feels isolated because he doesn’t like boys’ games and sports, but after age seven he is not allowed to play with girls. His sexual initiation at the age of fourteen, with a boy who is his closest friend at a new school, is vividly described. Selvadurai captures youth’s hesistancy, tormented uncertainty, and overwhelming sensations. Arjie also has to work out the terrible conflict he feels between his powerful attraction and love for his friend, and his shame. He realizes that traditional morality considers their acts to be abominable.
I highly recommend both Funny Boy and A Bird in the House for your summer reading. Each of the six stories in Funny Boy and the eight stories in A Bird in the House creates a complete world that transports you away from your own life. Such is the skill of these writers that reading their books seems easy; but both novels are complex, with much that is implied or suggested between the lines. Both share a tragic theme; that of people being trapped by circumstances over which they have no control; both show characters who become heavily wounded by their situations, suffer great losses and sometimes have no good choices to make.
No, these books are not “light” or “fun” reading, but they are thought-provoking and beautifully written. They may give you a good perspective on your own losses and the many positive choices you can make that were not possible for Arjie’s family or Vanessa’s.