Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
Published by Penguin India
Genres: Historical fiction, Coming of Age, LGBTQIA
For fans of: diverse books, bittersweet stories of coming-out in times of war.
My rating: 4 stars out of 5
In Shyam Selvadurai’s remarkable debut novel, a boy’s bittersweet passage to maturity and sexual awakening is set against escalating political tensions in Sri Lanka during the seven years leading up to the 1983 riots. Arjie Chevaratnam is a Tamil boy growing up in an extended family in Colombo. It is through his eyes that the story unfolds and we meet a delightful, sometimes eccentric, cast of characters. Arjie’s journey from the luminous simplicity of childhood days into the more intricately shaded world of adults – with its secrets, its injustices and its capacity for violence – is a memorable one, as time and time again the true longings of the human heart are held against the way things are.
Exquisitely written, and masterly in its mingling of the personal and political, Funny Boy has established itself as a classic.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS:
“A year seems to have passed during that time. Our lives have completely changed. I try to make sense of it, but it just won’t work”
True to the praise on the blurb, Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy was an exquisite read. It follows the life of little Arjun “Arjie” Chelvaratnam, a Tamil boy growing up in Colombo from childhood to his mid-teens.
What starts off as a funny, nostalgia-inducing story about a young boy who plays dress-up games with his cousin sisters very quickly turns into the haunting, thought-provoking tale of a boy growing up during the beginnings of the 26-year civil war.
This book is, essentially, a collection of six short stories that, compiled together, form a larger, bittersweet tale. As we’re walked through six incredibly significant events of Arjie’s life, it often becomes difficult to remember that Arjie the character is fiction, though his circumstances may not be.
Funny Boy is, as far as I’ve seen, marketed as a book about a young Tamil boy coming to terms with his sexuality and the realization that there’s something “different” about him – which in itself is hard enough. Even today, in 2017, society can be cruel in regards to homosexuality. Not just here in sunny Sri Lanka, but everywhere. (Come on, you watch the news.)
But, depressingly enough, this book is so much more than just that. It’s about a boy discovering that he’s quote, “Funny”, and it’s also about a boy who becomes increasingly aware of the escalating turmoil within his country. A boy who grows to realize that there are people who hate him because he is Tamil – a boy who, at the young age of fifteen, comes to terms with the fact that he and his family could be killed – brutally, mercilessly killed – because of his race.
When the book ends, sometime in the middle of Kalu Juliya* (Black July), the start of the 1983 riots and, basically, the war, it’s on a heartbreaking note. Arjie and his family have lost so much – Their home, their business, people they love. They’ve lost it all to violence and hatred, and the only thing they can do to ensure their safety is to say goodbye to the country they’ve called home for so many years, friends and loved ones, and flee.
Which brings me back to what I said earlier: Arjie may not be real, but his story and his circumstances just might be. There were countless other people just like him. Remember that when you read this book.
* Google it. It’s not fun, but if you’re interested in learning some history, look it up.
ICYMI: We’re celebrating Sri Lanka’s 69th Independence Day (4th Feb) by hosting our first ever giveaway to promote some of our amazing local literature. The giveaway is open till the 28th of Feb, so if you’re interested in winning one of books shown above, enter now!