Swimming in the Monsoon Sea

I’ve been excited to read this one for awhile now. I stumbled across Shyam Selvadurai a couple of years back, when I began my active search for Sri Lankan authors.

1443203Fourteen year-old Amrith is caught between childhood and adulthood. School has let out, and the holidays stretch out ahead of him in a seemingly infinite number of blank days. Amrith fears boredom, which is only kept at bay by his school’s holiday production of Othello.

Amrith, whose parents have both passed away, has effectively been adopted by Aunty Bundle, his mother’s childhood friend. He lives with her husband, and their two daughters. Lately, however, resentment has been bubbling up inside Amrith, spurred by the idea that he is alone, an orphan who has lost his real family. Which is why when Amrith’s cousin Niresh comes to visit Amrith is especially excited. It finally means a connection to his mother’s family. To Amrith’s surprise, however, he starts developing feelings for his cousin.

This is a coming of age story that tackles many themes: belonging, identity, sexuality, bravery. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Amrith as he tried to navigate his worries of being abandoned, and having no one. His youth makes him a little rash, and he says and does many impulsive things. All the same, he is still a sympathetic character, and I couldn’t help rooting for him.

One of the cons of this novel is that it chooses to “tell” rather than “show”. The setting of Sri Lanka is beautifully described, and is quite emotive at times. However, when it comes to interactions between characters, and their inner emotional development, the narration felt slightly stilted. It took the wind out of my sails a little, considering how excited I’d been about diving into this one. I think this also added, or rather, took away from significant character development. It could certainly have been expanded on more. As it is, I’d expect this book to be intended for the younger half of the young adult spectrum.

The blurb also states that the play Othello is a backdrop that parallels Amrith’s own romantic adventure. While it, and theatre, certainly plays a significant part in Amrith’s life, it is not really dwelled on as much as the blurb would suggest.

However, as a coming of age novel, it certainly holds it own. Things are tidied up perhaps a bit too prettily at the end, but it also means leaving this young boy, that I’d grown quite fond of, in a more optimistic and stable position. As a novel that focuses on queerness and youth, I believe it’s a significant player in the field of Sri Lanakn young adult fiction.

A Tiny Musical

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The great thing about David Levithan is that he writes books that manage to be ridiculously fun and breath-hitchingly poignant at the same time, and none of it ever feels inauthentic or far-reaching. That’s probably why he’s one of my favourite authors.

Hold Me Closer is a sequel of sorts to Will Grayson, Will Grayson. Tiny Cooper is one of the secondary characters in WG, WG, but he was far from forgettable and in Hold Me Closer, he receives the spotlight of the primary role that he deserves.

This story is told in the form of a musical script and there is as much going on in the musical numbers as there are in the directions in between them.

“People who don’t understand musical theater . . . tend to think of it as being unrealistic. I disagree. Because what is life if not a series of loud and quiet moments shuffled together with some music thrown in?”(introductory note)

Tiny (who is anything but in form and spirit) regales us with the story of his struggles – from the nerve-wracking business of coming out to his family, friends and, most importantly, himself – to the hilarious and painful lessons that his string of ex-boyfriends teach him. Throw in some hilarious song and dance numbers, a plethora of pop and Broadway references, and the ghost of Oscar Wilde and you won’t even notice you’re flicking the pages.

What shines most in this novel is, of course, Tiny’s search for love – he is so desperate for that endorphin high that he hurtles into each relationship with all the eagerness of a kid at their first theme park. However, not everyone is as appreciate of his larger-than-life heart, or his adamant optimism, as his friends and family are, and despite his good intentions the world isn’t quite ready to embrace his flaws and his flair.
“Try to capture what it’s like to never have squeezed yourself into somebody else’s expectations.”  (92)
One of the most gut-twisting moments is when Tiny sings a ballad to a parade of his ex-boyfriends, a moment when he realizes that they aren’t able to see him the way he is – that to some, he is always going to be the Big joke, not simply that no one is going to go beyond the exterior, but that no one has the capacity to truly appreciate it either.

“If you think one musical number gets rid of all his insecurities, think again. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong. But he doesn’t feel it yet. And while it’s great to know the right words, in order for them to become your truth, you have to feel them, too.” (114)

Levithan always manages to reveal the great truths with a very simple turn of phrase (though they become magical in their power). That’s what makes his books so realistic, the mixture of the trivial and the wonderful, the mundane and the marvellous, and it reminds you that life can be like that outside the pages, too.

Though love is a central theme, this novel makes it clear that there are many types of it, and that romantic love is not the only thing that should define a life.
“The idea that two is the ideal, and that is one is only good as half of two. You are not a half, and you should never treat somebody else like a half.”(32)

Numerous YA novels get caught up in the story arc of finding that perfect someone, but with the addition of each ex boyfriend it becomes clear that it’s not the search for the perfect someone but the perfect himself that Tiny is spiralling closer towards.

“If act one in life is about finding yourself/ Then act two is about finding everyone else.” (81)

If there is one line that I would have a given a standing ovation to, it is that one. I read many, many YA books in my highschool days, and almost every single one had that moment of magical connection that a character share with one who understands the protagonist best, and you know what? Those books are way off the mark. That does not happen in highschool. You’d be incredibly lucky to find that type of relationship in highschool. And even if you were so, it should not be the be-all, and end-all that many YA books seem to present it as.It is ridiculous to think that there is simply that one, significant connection you’re required to make with your soulmate; there will always be opportunities for numerous important relationships in a person’s life, and the majority certainly won’t, and shouldn’t necessarily be of the romantic variety. To have that misconception drilled readers at such a precarious and vulnerable time as the adolescent period is mind-boggling to me.

Tiny’s search for love ends up being a search for himself. It is a cliche, but it’s a cliche that needs to be sung much louder for all the pre-teens and teens out there to hear. I love love love that this novel ends with Tiny secure in the knowledge of himself that he is now, and the himself that he could become in the future.