In a nutshell
The story is set in the seventies, during the tumultuous times of Sri Lanka, when the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and its Hindu Tamil minority were at war (Sri Lankan Civil War). It’s basically a novel in 6 short stories, told in chronological order (Pigs Can’t Fly; Radha Aunty; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; Small Choices; The Best School of All and Riot Journal: An Epilogue), that revolves around a young Tamil boy’s life growing up in Sri Lanka while confronting his own sexuality. The novel also explores other themes such as love, acceptance, relationships, racism and politics (I particularly liked this in See No Evil, Hear No Evil (p138) when Arjie’s mother found out her lover had been killed:
‘“We must do something,” she said, breaking the silence. “We can’t just sit by and act as if nothing has happened.” She looked at me. “But where does one turn when the police and the government are the offenders?”‘
A this one (pg143) struck a chord.
“What has this country come to, where a man can be murdered and nothing must be done?” she cried. “The problem is that no one cares any more. People only look out for themselves.”
What I liked
I loved Pigs Can’t Fly the most, where Arjie’s voice (at the age of 7) was captured best – his personality, innocence and confusion were clear and strong; it’s hard not to feel for him and love him. Oh and I definitely love the nicknames the author had chosen for some of his characters like Arjie’s brother, Diggy (it’s funny when you find out why), Her Fatness (oh, I love her too. She’s one helluva character!), Black Tie and Angel of Death.
It wasn’t just his narrating skills that captivated me but also his ability to capture Arjie’s voice as he grew older, when he slowly realises the hard truths about love, marriage and the social conflicts that surround him.
Using his characters, he also discussed some of the controversial issues with utmost honesty, especially when Arjie’s mother was trying to persuade her husband to migrate to Canada, the narrow escapes at night from the Tamil Tigers, and the brutality and horror of Sri Lanka’s civil war.
I also enjoyed The Best School of All, reading about Black Tie (who ‘belongs to the old school that believes you can beat knowledge into a student’) and what he thinks he had to do to save the school. It was also in this chapter that Arjie began his journey of discovering (and accepting) his true self:
‘Before getting up, I lay listening to the sound of the birds in the guava tree outside my window. The moment I had waited for since Friday night was finally here. Soon Shehan would arrive, and after that anything was possible. I was excited but also scared.’
What could have been done better
One thing though…I felt that the author ‘held back’ a little and was very brief in narrating Arjie’s first sexual encounter – it sort of didn’t leave an impact as it should have, seeing that it was his first. And in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, it didn’t feel complete…Can’t really tell exactly what, but I feel that Amma’s (Arjie’s mom) feelings and conflicts weren’t thoroughly explored. It felt to me like, ‘So okay, he’s (Amma’s lover) dead, so now, I’ll move on to my husband and family.’ It’s as though the author just touched the surface and left its ‘anticipated’ complexities hanging.
Overall, it was a great read! I’d recommended it to everyone 🙂
My verdict? 4/5
Book bite: Funny Boy won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and Cinnamon Gardens (1998). He currently lives in Toronto with his partner Andrew Champion.