CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2005
The stunning cover, lyrical descriptions of the water and home setting, and lively dialogue immerse the reader in the world of the Sri Lanka of 25 years ago. The tropical setting, colourful birds in the aviary and monsoon rains drench this novel through and through. From lunches carried in tiffin carriers, to afternoon naps, to the Catholic Students' Union, a rich, complex setting unfolds. Aunty Bundle’s family's wealth creates for him a protected world of servants, one in which he is totally cared for and sheltered from the realities of adulthood and sexuality.
Amrith is an entirely realistic young boy of his times. His lack of friends, deep grief over his mother, and sheltered upbringing make his sexual innocence believable. In such a non-sexual society, where the sexes are carefully supervised until they are eighteen, Amrith's epiphany that he is a homosexual and his acceptance of his difference seem plausible. Amrith's forgiveness of Aunty Bundle and his coming to terms with his mother's death demonstrate his growth and his coming of age.
Niresh, initially a liar and boaster who will do anything to escape his abusive father, gradually soaks up the loving support of Amrith's family until he finds himself immersed in Sri Lankan history, art and architecture and by extension into a cheerful, outgoing, family-oriented culture. He lets go of the North American pop culture and hip, cool tone that will amuse today's readers.
Mala and Selvi love Amrith even when he is horrid to them; they and their parents, Amrith's Aunty Bundle and Uncle Lucky, reinforce the theme of loving forgiveness and family support. Bundle even forgives Mervin and welcomes Niresh. Lucky's philosophical musing about the necessity of forgiveness later gives Amrith the courage to reconcile with his cousin. Mervin's divorced and drunken state highlights his evil nature. Bundle also sees the goodness in her business partner, architect Lucien Lindamulage, and resolutely refuses to regard him as evil because he is a homosexual. Madam, the school’s drama coach, also refuses to judge homosexuals.
This novel reminds the reader of Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family; both evoke nostalgia for another time and place while highlighting the struggles of children with their families. Swimming in the Monsoon Sea is the kind of reflective, complex novel best appreciated by adults and older teenagers who have moved to a more thoughtful, contemplative approach to literature.
Joan Marshall of Winnipeg, MB, is a retired senior high teacher-librarian.
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