Book Review: Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai

ImageArjie, the ‘funny boy’ of the book’s title, is, at the beginning of the novel, a seven-year-old boy, the youngest of three children in a Sri Lankan Tamil family.

It’s the late 1970s and Arjie’s life is blissfully uncomplicated, the highlight of every month a ‘spend-the-day’ at his grandparents’ house.  Arjie longs for these days of relative freedom when he gets to indulge his love of dress-up, shunning the boys’ boisterous cricket match to lead the girls through a game of bride-bride with him at the centre, resplendent in a sari.

But cracks soon start appearing in these glorious spend-the-days, and, as the years move on, these cracks grow wider, and more dangerous, spreading beyond the domestic setting. First Arjie’s every day is shattered by society’s rigid and repressive codes who forbid him to indulge his love of dressing-up and, later, by a series of catastrophic events that tear Sri Lanka and, with it, Arjie’s life, apart.

Alongside these horrors, Arjie grapples with his growing awareness of the realities of life and his own sexuality. The book is told as a chronicle narrative, but is broken down into half a dozen chapters that make it read like a series of short stories, in fact, it’s subtitled ‘A Novel In Six Chapters’.

At the beginning, we’re introduced to Radha Aunty, Arjie’s father’s younger sister who is away studying in the States but returns to Sri Lanka to arrange her marriage. Arjie, obsessed with the idea of a real-life bride, soon becomes Radha’s shadow as she takes him under her wings and uses him as a confidant in her secret flirtation with a Sinhalese man a liaison that first opens Arjie’s eyes to racial conflict. Later Arjie is party to his mother’s affair with an old flame while her husband, Arjie’s father, is away in Europe, an episode that ends brutally and brings Arjie and his mother face-to-face with the true horrors around them.

We follow Arjie as he starts a new, brutal school where he meets Shehen Soyza who helps Arjie understand who he is and change his life forever. The shifting political landscape and tensions run through the novel building along with the monsoon clouds until they eventually erupt along with the pounding rains.

Funny Boy is an engaging, insightful and poignant story of a boy whose simple, playful life is torn apart by violence and a more gentle dawning of the realities of life. It’s a compelling and enlightening read, although I don’t think Selvadurai ever really caught Arjie’s voice quite right. He was a little knowing, a bit quick to piece together overheard adult conversations (there was a frustrating reliance on accidental eavesdropping as the only way to link stories). The final epilogue is especially jarring as Arjie’s voice is suddenly mature and all-knowing. No doubt this sudden maturity is meant to reflect the experiences he’s been through, but it left me thinking the novel had been hijacked by another character.

But these are small niggles for what is otherwise a compelling, insightful and enthralling coming-of-age tale that uses a domestic setting to tell a bigger picture of a country’s unravelling turmoil and a young boy’s own sexual awakening in the midst of prejudice and the fear of being different.

by Suzanne Elliott