Jun 9, 2009

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai

Set in Sri Lanka in 1980, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea tells the story of Amrith, a fourteen-year-old boy. Amrith’s parents died under mysterious circumstances when he was only six, and after being disowned by his remaining relatives, he was adopted by Aunty Bundle and Uncle Lucky, his mother’s best friend and her husband. Though they’ve always treated him with nothing but kindness, Amrith still feels the sting of having been rejected by his own family.

When his cousin Niresh comes to visit for the summer from Canada, Amrith is thrilled that his estranged maternal uncle agrees to let him spend time with him. The two boys become quick friends, and soon Amrith realizes that there may be more to his feelings for Niresh than he had imagined.

Shakespeare’s Othello adds another layer to the story: Amrith is supposed to play Desdemona in his school’s production of it, but after his cousin’s arrival he can no longer find the time to practice. The play’s themes of jealousy and distrust, however, find their way into his life.

There’s a lot to love about Swimming in the Monsoon Sea. I loved the fact that even though part of the plot focuses on Amrith realizing he’s gay, this is not exclusively a book about being gay. His sexual orientation is shown as what it is: just one of many facets of his life, just one of the many things he has to deal with in the whole process of growing up. Other things include coming to terms with his parents’ deaths, discovering where he belongs, and learning to trust those who surround him.

Another thing I loved was that the book was full of examples of how sexism affects both men and women, and of how it and homophobia are often connected. The society Amrith lives in is not exactly gay friendly, and neither do women enjoy a lot of freedom. When Amrith realizes that he’s attracted to his cousin, all the derogatory remarks he has heard about homosexuality immediately come to his mind. Here’s an example:
As Amrith looked at him, he remembered how he had once heard boys in his school mention Lucien Lindamulgé’s secretaries and refer to the old man as a “ponnaya” – a word whose precise meaning Amrith didn’t understand, though he knew it disparaged the masculinity of another man, reducing him to the level of a woman.
And later:
A ponnaya-that was what he was, a ponnaya. He did not know what to do about this thing within him, where to turn, who to appeal to for comfort. He felt the burden of his silence choking him.
The rigid definitions of what it means to be a man and to be a woman and the assumption that masculinity is superior are a big part of the reason why Amrith feels the way he does as he discoverers his own sexuality. There is no real resolution at the end of the novel, but he does learn to accept who he is a little more. And interestingly, the resentment he felt towards Aunty Bundle also begins to disappear.

I also loved the setting. I knew next to nothing about Sri Lanka, and while I still don’t know much, at least I know a little bit more than I did before. The way the book portraits Sri Lankan society and culture is very vivid and very interesting. Amrith lives in a world where schools are not co-ed, where different social classes don’t mix, where there are specific expectations and rules of behaviour. It’s also interesting to see how his Canadian cousin reacts to all of this. I’ve spoken mostly about Amrith so far, but Nerish is a very interesting character in his own right, who has questions of his own that he’s trying to answer, namely about identity and belonging.

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea is a very good book, but it’s not perfect. There were times when I thought that Amrith was a lot more gullible than a fourteen-year-old boy would be. But then again, this is a different culture, the 1980s, and he leads a sheltered life. My main problem with the book was that the writing was very uneven. There were passages I liked a lot. Take this description of a suspicious six-year-old Amrith being brought to meet Aunty Bundle for the first time.
He found himself going to her. It was her voice that drew him, its low murmur like a stream running over pebbles. She put an arm around him and drew him to her. There was a deftness to her touch. She held him but did not confine him in any way. Amrith allowed himself to sink into her, let her stroke his head. Her perfume was sweet but also woody, like fresh cut logs. Bhootaya, their dog, who never trusted strangers, was lying by Aunty Bundle’s chair, her snout on her paws.
But then you get bits like this:
When the tailor was done, the boys stood next to each other in the mirror, looking at their reflections. They smiled to acknowledge that they liked wearing matching shirts.
Well, yes. I could have figured out why they were smiling on my own. There are a few other examples of stating the obvious, as well as some awkward dialogue. But the setting is one you don’t see often in YA, the characterization is good, and the story is emotionally resonant. Considering that, I don’t hesitate to recommend this book.

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And visit Ms Bookish to see her daughter's impressive short film inspired by the book.

32 comments:

  1. Very recently, a reader mentioned to my that her mother's home country was Sri Lanka, and I realized I didn't know of any books at all from there. Considering the subject matter is right up my alley, I think I should add this to my list. Maybe even to my GLBT Challenge list. :)

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  2. This sounds like an interesting book. Nice review.

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  3. I do like a book that gives you an insight into other countries and their differing cultures.This book does appeal to me, I like the story line and the setting.

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  4. This book has been on my to-read list for ages. I've meant to read it but keep getting sidetracked by awesome YA. Looks like I need to move it up my list.

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  5. This sounds like a great coming of age story. It's good to see YA tackling subjects like sexuality too.

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  6. Sounds like a pretty interesting book. I haven't read a book set in Sri Lanka, but am intrigued. I've read a lot of fiction set in India & Pakistan and wonder how the culture translates. I'll definitely have to check this one out! Thanks for the great review.

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  7. Amanda: This is perfect for the GLBT challenge! It's a Lambda Awards winner, actually.

    Charley, I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up!

    Scrap Girl: I like it too. I need to make more of an effort to diversify my reading, actually.

    Renay: Stupid awesome YA...the things it does to us :P Anyway, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it. Like I said, it's not perfect, but I thought that the good outweighted the bad.

    Bermudaonion: I agree! It's part of growing up, after all.

    mjmbecky: There were definitely elements I had in other books set in South Asia: the traces of British colonialism, for example. But there was so much I had no idea about.

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  8. It must have been tough for boys in that time and place to even admit to themselves they were gay. It sounds very interesting and your review was great.

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  9. Excellent insight into this book Nymeth. I've read a lot of GLBT but haven't read this one. Sounds like I need to!!

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  10. If you reviewed it and it's on Renay's wish list, then I know I need to read it soon.

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  11. This book sounds really good. I would never had guessed the subject from the title. I have read books set in Srilanka but have never read anything by a Sri Lankan suthor. Thanks for the review Nymeth.

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  12. I have this one on my Lambda Challenge list. I have a feeling I'm going to like it a great deal.

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  13. Hi Ana, I don't remember reading any book on Sri Lanka, but your review makes me want to.

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  14. I think just for the Sri Lanka setting alone I should put this on my list - honestly, I can't think of a book that I've read that's set in that country. I must have been interesting too to read the Canadian cousin's observations compared to the boy from Sri Lanka.

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  15. first off, I like that cover.
    this does sound like a good book!
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  16. This sounds fascinating, very much my kind of thing. Will add it to the 'keep an eye out for' list.

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  17. I don't think I've ever read one single book set in Sri Lanka, although I did read a travel essay once about the Tamil Tigers...which was very interesting, but not really much to do with day-to-day Sri Lankan life. I love it when books can really make their settings come alive - I'll have to look for this one!

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  18. Jaimie: Yes, that's the main problem he has to deal with... admitting it to himself.

    Staci, I hope you enjoy it when you do.

    Vasilly: It's a good one!

    Violet: I think he has Canadian citizenship now, but he was born and spent his childhood in Sri Lanka.

    Diane: I thought it was :)

    Debi: I think you will!

    Alice: I was entertaining the thought of starting a personal project to read books set in countries I've never read a book set in before. And Malaysia would be on the list, actually, so I might pester you for some recommendations :P

    Iliana: One of the things the reader immediately realizes, but that Amrith only begins to see with time, is that his cousin's life in Canada isn't as fun as he makes it sound. He doesn't feel like he belongs, so he comes to Sri Lanka hoping to at last feel at home. That was another interesting aspect of the book.

    Naida: Me too, especially the colours.

    Cath, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Jenny: This reminds me that I should read more travel writing. I love it, but for some reason I never seek it out.

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  19. I meant to stop by the other day to tell you how much I enjoyed your review. This sounds like such a beautiful book in many ways; it's also good to know, too, that the writing can be uneven. I can really see why this book spoke to my daughter the way it did. And thank you for the link to her film!

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  20. This sounds like a multifaceted book that I think would be really enjoyable. I am going to be putting it on my wish list. Thanks, and great review!

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  21. I'm glad you reviewed this one; I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it or not (I like the premise, heard bad things about the writing style), so it's nice to hear another opinion!

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  22. Another book to add to my list! Thanks for the wonderful review.

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  23. This sounds awesome! I like that it gives a view of Sri Lankan society. I think it would also be very interesting to see how a adolescent from a culture aside from North American deals with his sexuality.

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  24. Belle, thank you for the kind words! Your daughter's film really was amazing, so it was my pleasure to include the link :)

    Zibilee, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Eva: I agree that the writing is far from being the best, but I think the book's qualities make it worth it regardless.

    Gavin, you're welcome!

    Joanne: It really made me stop to think about how the more strict a society is about gender roles, the more likely it is that there'll be homophobia.

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  25. Yeah you finally read it. I'm sorry I wasn't able to send you my copy like I was suppose to, but I'm glad you found a copy of your own. I must say your review was a MILLION times better than mine. I added a link to yours from mine, thanks for the link.

    You write AWESOME reviews. You said everything I thought but couldn't figure out how to say.

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  26. Callista, thank you so much for the kind words!! And nothing to apologize for! I did find a copy easily, and I completely understand :)

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  27. Nymeth, thanks so much for linking this to the Roll Call. Just added it to my library queue.

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  28. I, too, am glad you included this for roll call. Sounds like something I'd want to read. Thanks.

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  29. Hey Ana - Would it be completely terrible of me if I just said nevermind about this book? I've been trying to read it off and on for a week now, and have only gotten to page 40. The writing is killing me. I just read through a passage about how Amrith's body is changing and he doesn't know what to do with all those changes. There's just so much telling instead of showing...I guess I'm just getting irritated. Is it worth it for me to keep going?

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  30. Amanda, if the writing is killing you then I'd say put it aside - I'm afraid it doesn't get any better. There *are* well-written bits, but there are even more awkward ones. Like I said, it's really very uneven :/ It's a pity, because I did like the story (and the setting) a lot...but I know that when the writing irritates me a lot I have trouble appreciating the story anyway. For some reason, in this case it didn't annoy me enough to ruin everything else for me, but if I had been in a different mood I know it would have.

    Susan and Doret, I'm very glad you found the link useful!

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  31. Thanks Ana. I don't think I'm going to abandon it so much as return it to the library to read some time in the future. Right now, when I'm already distracted by my writing, it might not be the best time to try to get through this one.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.