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July 7, 1999
Love, Rebellion And Punishment In Ceylon
R S Shankar
"I became obsessed with the stories that my grandmother used to tell me," says Shyam Selvadurai whose second novel, Cinnamon Gardens, like his first work, Funny Boy, is set in Sri Lanka. The grandmother must have indeed told him a thousand tales, for Cinnamon Gardens is filled with colorful and often disturbing stories involving Hindus and Christians, Tamils, Sinhalese and the British -- the gays and lesbians and heterosexuals.
But unlike the fiercely autobiographical and seriously amusing Funny Boy, his new novel, set in the British-ruled Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, broodingly examines the price individuals paid for their rebellion against conventional life.
Cinnamon Gardens hit the American bookshops this week; it is published by Hyperion, a division of Walt Disney, which is targeted by several rightwing Christian groups for, among other things, publishing books by gay and lesbian writers.
Selvadurai, 35, whose family fled the anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka 16 years ago, tells the story of Annalukshmi Kandiah who resents her father's plans to arrange her marriage. A spirited woman, Annulakshmi at 22 prefers her teaching career in a mission school, and her friendships with a freethinking teacher and the latter's ward.
Rigidity is everywhere around Annalukshmi. Her uncle Balendran has been even more rigidly controlled by his father, the Mudliyar Navaratnam, a British-appointed official whose estate his son dutifully manages, 20 years after the Mudliyar had "rescued'' Balendran from a homosexual relationship and steered him into a wedded life -- and presumably into respectability.
When Balendran's first love, Richard, whom he has not seen in over two decades, arrives from England to study Ceylon's political situation, the past begins to haunt Balendran and Richard.
Meanwhile, Annalukshmi takes strength from her studies, her reading, and her growing insights into the choices made by her school headmistress and her mother, sisters, and friends, to extricate herself from the compromises of marriage.
After steering us through the challenges to conventional societal norms, Selvadurai finally makes Annalukshmi understand and accept the consequences of her defiance. Meanwhile, Balendran finds the courage to emerge from his father's domineering shadow.
The paths of uncle and niece have crossed by the end of the novel.
Funny Boy received glowing reviews from major American and Canadian publications; it won the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel prize.
But Selvadurai's new novel has received mixed reviews in Canada. In the United States, where the reviews have just started appearing, there seems to be a consensus that while the book has strong merits, it is somewhat disappointing.
"The book is out there, and I'm happy it's out there," Selvadurai says, hoping that the readers would enjoy the book as much as his first novel.
Among the earliest reviews to come, Kirkus Reviews called it 'an ambitious, often moving, but ultimately unsatisfying second novel.' But it complained about Selvadurai's 'frustratingly lax narrative.'
And yet, it said: 'An impressive near-miss. Selvadurai appears to be still learning his craft, but his gifts for compassionate characterization and clarity of statement augur well, and suggest that this very interesting new writer may be on the verge of producing major work.'
The Booklist called it 'beguiling.'
Reviews by daily newspapers are forthcoming in the next few weeks.
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