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SWIMMING IN THE MONSOON SEAby Shyam Selvadurai. Tundra Books, September 2005. Hardcover, 274 pages, 18.95. www.tundrabooks.com
Shyam Selvadurai writes with great sensitivity of a young boy’s sexual awakening during one summer of both exhilaration and upheaval. Selvadurai places his protagonist, Amrith, in the Sri Lanka of the early 1980s. It is an exotic backdrop where innocence, social standards, and family loyalty are the rule rather than the exception. While the book is fiction, the author states that it is “filled with the details of my happy childhood in Sri Lanka.”
Amrith goes to live with his Aunty Bundle and Uncle Luck upon the death of his parents. While the couple loves and cares for the young boy as if he were their own son, Amrith’s memories of his mother’s love remain a strong influence in his life. He has no memory of his father, except the shadow of something slightly sinister. He questions why they both died when they did.
As intriguing as it sounds, the story is less about where Amrith came from and all about who he becomes. Keeping company with his sisters, practicing his typing in his uncle’s office, practicing for his school’s Shakespeare play, and spending time in his aviary with his beloved bird, Kaveni, make up his days until the day his cousin Niresh arrives from Canada.
It is the first contact he has with any relatives from either his mother’s or father’s families since both families were vehemently opposed to the marriage, and wanted nothing to do with its issue upon their death. Amrith slowly comes to realize that what he feels for his cousin transcends family love. How he deals with this new knowledge of himself and how his sexual orientation will be received in the traditional society in which he lives is wrought so gracefully and poignantly that one will be tempted to read passages twice for their elegance:
That night, Amrith had a strange dream. He was at the very bottom of the sea, but perfectly able to breathe in water. He was involved in the task of pushing an object, many sizes larger than himself, up to the surface. It was his mother’s cane chair, grown enormous. The one she had always sat in and that he always found abandoned in his nightmare. He was far smaller than the chair and so it was hard work to move it. But he would not quit, and he swam around, pulling away weeds, dislodging a chair leg that was trapped between two rocks, pushing at the chair with his little shoulders and arms. And gradually it began to rise. Up … up … up. Towards light.
While there is nothing easy about Amrith’s struggle, no assurances given that this boy will never need to suffer pain due to someone else’s ignorance, Selvadurai imbues this character with the gift of self-knowledge and advice for anyone who finds it hard to accept themselves: “He would have to teach himself to be his own best friend, his own confidant and guide.”
|Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.|