________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2005


Swimming in the Monsoon Sea.

Shyam Selvadurai.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2005.
274 pp., cloth, $24.99.
ISBN 0-88776-735-4.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joan Marshall.

*** /4

Reviewed from uncorrected proofs.


When Amrith got home that evening and was in his bedroom untying his shoelaces, the girls charged in.

Selvi threw herself on the bed. "So-so, tell-tell."

"Yes, Amrith, how was it?" Mala rested a hand on his shoulder. "Did you like him?"

"What did he look like?" Selvi demanded."A boy." He kicked off his shoes.

Selvi rolled her eyes. 'But is he tall or short, fat or thin, fair or dark?"

"Tall, thin, dark." He began to remove his socks. Some of his cousin's wickedness had brushed off on him.

"Tttch, don't be so stubborn, Amrith. Tell, will you?" Selvi had no doubt promised her friends a full account.

"Why are you so keen to know? Are you looking for a foreign boyfriend?"

"Huh," Selvi sniffed. "I see your cousin is already a terrible influence on you."

Amrith sauntered into his bathroom, whistling, and shut the door after him.

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea dips the reader into the privileged world of wealthy Sri Lankans, circa 1980. Fourteen-year-old Amrith glumly approaches his six week school holiday learning to type at his uncle's business and trying out for the part of Desdemona in his all-boys school production of Othello. Amrith surges with rage at his Aunty Bundle, his guardian, whom he perceives as the one responsible for taking him away from his beloved mother who died with his alcoholic father in a motorcycle accident when Amrith was six. Not even Aunty Bundle’s daughters, Selvi and Mala, whom Amrith regards as his sisters, can distract him from his anger and his longing for Sanasuma, his family's former mountain retreat. However, when his mother's brother, Melvin, arrives from Canada with his son, Niresh, Amrith discovers real friendship, delighting in Niresh's flaunting of authority and tales of Canada. Amrith jealously guards his time with Niresh. He resents Mala's attraction to Niresh, and gradually he becomes so irritated by their relationship and by the other boys' teasing that his anger boils over and he lashes out at Mala. In a storm centred climax, Amrith suddenly realizes that he has fallen in love with Niresh. The cousins part as friends; Niresh shares the truth about his ordinary life in Canada, and Amrith tells him all about his mother. Amrith's great-aunt Wilhelmina uses her wealth to rescue Sanasuma for Amrith. Amrith reconciles with his Aunty Bundle and gains the strength to cope with his homosexuality from messages sent by his mother in his dreams.

     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.

     The dangers of uncalled for jealousy swell over from the play Othello to Amrith's own life where he cannot even perform Desdemona's role let alone see the foolhardiness of Othello's passion.

     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.

Highly Recommended.

Joan Marshall of Winnipeg, MB, is a retired senior high teacher-librarian.


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