||A Review of: Swimming in the Monsoon Sea
by Heather Birrell
Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, Shyam Selvadurai's first novel for young adults, is a gentle, well-paced and moving yarn of first love, family and belonging-a Sri Lankan Cinderella story for the 21st century. As the story opens, we meet Amrith, the novel's 14-year-old protagonist, a gifted actor and loner who carries his self-conscious share of adolescent secrets and shame. Like the fairy-tale heroine, Amrith has lost his parents and finds himself ensconced in a sprawling home with two stepsisters. Unlike the soot-stained wretch, however, Amrith is well-loved and well treated by all members of his adoptive family, which includes the "sisters" Selvi and Mala, and his new parents Auntie Bundle and Uncle Lucky. As their nicknames suggest, this mother and father team are both warm and fortunate, and Amrith's sullen restlessness springs not from parental neglect but from the events of his past and his burgeoning sexuality.
It is obvious from the outset that Amrith attributes some blame for his mother's death to his Auntie Bundle, although it is not clear exactly why-a consequence no doubt of what Uncle Lucky dubs "the Sri Lankan habit of shoo-shoo-boo-boo. Hiding things." Amrith finds some respite from his muddled feelings and relative friendlessness in the theatre at his all-boys school. He is to play the role of Desdemona in an upcoming production of Othello-a role he treasures, having been awarded a prize for his portrayal of Juliet the previous year. When a classmate known for his thespian talents makes an unexpected return however, Amrith feels his precarious position threatened and his insecurity grows.
It is perhaps fitting that the nearest we come to a Prince Charming in this story is the character of Niresh, Amrith's chain-smoking, joke-cracking, 16-year-old cousin who arrives in a cloud of controversy from, yep, Canada. Although Amrith is initially cowed by Niresh's brashness, a quick and easy friendship soon springs up between the two boys. The villain (and the controversy) finds form in Niresh's father, a selfish man who mistreated Amrith's mother in the past, and is therefore reviled by the ever-loyal Auntie Bundle. Uncle Lucky, not only lucky but also wise, gets to the crux of the matter: "Families hold on to things for too long, nurse grievances until they corrode their hearts and ruin their lives. How much better it is to forgive old wrongs, to let things go. It frees you up to get on with your life."
Yet the old wrongs persist in the family's memory, and when Niresh begins to pay too much attention to Mala, Amrith allows his jealousy to foment into a brand new grudge. This jealousy (which echoes Othello's prevailing theme) also forces him to acknowledge something about himself; he is attracted to Niresh in more than a friendly way. He suspects he is ponnaya, "a word whose precise meaning [he] did not understand, though he knew it disparaged the masculinity of another man, reducing him to the level of a woman." Selvadurai gives Amrith just the right amount of fumbling insight into this new self-awareness, sensibly forgoing a focus on the "issue" for a more nuanced treatment of the whole person in language both workaday and lyrical. Also successful is the author's use of the moody monsoon sea of the title as reflection of (and counterpoint to) Amrith's shifting disposition.
The ending here is both satisfying and joyful-although less a case of "happily ever after" than Uncle Lucky's "getting on with life". Young readers will relate to Amrith's confusion, elation, and loneliness, his family's rifts and reconciliations, and his own poetic (and mortal) realizations: "How odd it was-the way that life could gather in stillness and then burst its banks, flowing forward with such rapidity."