Maclean’s, October 24, 1994
By Shyam Selvadurai
(McClelland & Stewart, 316 pages, $17.99)
Arjun, the protagonist of Shyam Selvadurai’s first novel, is homosexual, and “funny boy” is the term that his family uses to derogate him. Throughout the six chronologically arranged short stories that form the narrative, Arjun, who lives in Sri Lanka, never has any doubt about his sexual orientation, and his loved ones seem fairly certain as well. So much for tension. By the time Arjun finally acts on his longings, it is page 258. For the reader, it is a disappointing kind of vindication to have known where a story was heading so far in advance.
Funny Boy, which appears to be at least semi-autobiographical, trudges towards the predictable by way of the obvious. Sri Lankan-born Toronto writer Selvadurai telegraphs all his narrative punches, amplifying the mistake by troweling on melodramatic foreshadowing with such interior monologue as “Little could I have imagined then that my father would soon step out of the frame in which I had held him, to reveal dimensions I had never imagined him to possess.”
Racism affords the book’s other plot line and theme: the animosity between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamil populations, which finally culminated in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots. However, the roots of the antagonism are never explained. In the version of events provided by Selvadurai, who is half Sinhalese and half Tamil, it seems as though the Sinhalese majority suddenly started burning, looting and killing Tamils for no apparent reason.
Despite all that, the literati have decided that Shyam Selvadurai is a talent to be watched: Funny Boy is one of five books on the shortlist for the $25,000 Giller Prize for fiction. Judges Mordecai Richler, Alice Munro and editor-academic David Staines chose it over about 85 other Canadian books published this year. Selvadurai is also a darling of the politically correct set, because he is an immigrant and gay. But those are simply facts, not states of grace. What one would like from his novel is a protagonist whose struggle with his sexuality illuminates the plight of any person who cannot deny what he or she is, even if that means opprobrium from one’s family and society. That conflict is explored brilliantly in Jeannette Winterson’s 1987 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. If the subject matter of Funny Boy seems appealing or intriguing, read Winterson.