When I heard of Shyam Selvadurai’s novel Funny Boy, it went to the top of my TBR pile. A boy who grows up during the ethnic unrest of the ‘80s in Sri Lanka, and gradually realizes he’s gay? Plus, he migrates to Canada? I’m straight and female, but otherwise, I could relate. Warning : spoilers ahead.
The story starts with Arjie Chelvaratnam organizing an elaborate play with his female cousins, where his role is to be the bride at a wedding. His aunt finds him wrapped in a sari, and she dubs him “a funny one”. This doesn’t mean he’s amusing. It means he’s someone who’ll be spoken of in mocking whispers, an oddity who won’t fit into the neat, decent boxes of either man or woman when he grows up. Just as Arjie is torn between what his family expects and what he is, the country fractures under the tension between the ethnic groups of the Singhalese majority and the Tamil minority, to which Arjie’s family belongs.
This could have been a wonderful story, but after the start, it went downhill. The Singhalese-Tamil conflict is made personal when Arjie’s aunt falls for a Singhalese man. Except it’s told from Arjie’s perspective, so the aunt has to take him with her on secret meetings. I don’t know what’s more unrealistic, the Sri Lankan version of Romeo and Juliet discussing their feelings in front of a little boy, or the boy sitting quietly, as absorbed in their conversation as they are.
His aunt’s romance breaks up, and then it’s his mother’s turn – this time with a Burgher, a man descended from Dutch colonists. It’s a different kind of ethnic friction, equally interesting, but it’s in the wrong book. Once again Arjie is taken along on adult trysts like a piece of luggage. Thankfully the next episode focuses on him. A young accountant comes to work for Arjie’s father, but there are whispers that the accountant has ties to the LTTE—the Tamil Tigers, a militant organization that fought for a separate homeland in Sri Lanka.
It was obvious the romances were meant to showcase political conflicts, but Arjie’s attraction to the accountant took me by surprise, because until then the story had shown him as a little boy. It’s only after he admires the accountant’s thighs that he adds, oh yeah, my voice broke. Whew. It would have been nice to know that before the mental lusting started.
Now that the story has thrown this bone to his coming-of-age, it switches back to Problematic Issues In Sri Lanka. Arjie’s father owns a hotel where some of the male guests are tourists who pick up boys from the village.
“But isn’t it illegal?”
My father chuckled. “I don’t see any police out there, do you?” He poured himself another drink. “It’s not just our luscious beaches that keep the tourist industry going, you know. We have other natural resources as well.”
This reflects the attitudes of many people only too well, but the situation is never developed. It’s just a nod to an ugly facet of life for the desperately poor, and the story moves on. In any event, Arjie couldn’t be paired up with a grown man, so after the accountant is gone, Arjie falls for a fellow student. The student is abused by the headmaster, so Arjie messes up an important recital to get revenge, one of the few times he plays an active role in the story.
Then the epilogue begins. The story is long-drawn-out and rambling, but the epilogue brings a whiplash change of pace. Dealing with the riots where Tamils were murdered, it’s in the form of time-stamped diary entries. “I am using my torch to write this,” Arjie notes, preparing to escape a violent mob. Glad you’ve got your priorities straight. (No pun intended.) Arson and murder engulf everyone in a rushed finale, the last romance is over, and the family flees to Canada.
I felt for Arjie at the start, but he was a passive observer for far too long. Readers should also be aware of a heavy dose of fat-shaming, when he continually mocks one of his cousins as “Her Fatness”. Finally, this is the author’s first novel, and the clunky, self-conscious prose reflects it :
Like a ship that leaves a port for the vast expanse of sea, those much looked forward to days took me away from the safe harbor of childhood towards the precarious waters of adult life.
This book shows both sides of the ethnic conflict with a balanced hand, and the setting is authentic. But ultimately, I was bored. It might have been better if the author had committed to either the coming-out story or the political/social problems in Sri Lanka, rather than pushing the two into an arranged marriage of a narrative where the author’s storytelling skills really weren’t up to it.