"Cinnamon Gardens"

An epic novel captures Sri Lankan high society at the turn of the century, starched but beginning to wrinkle.

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Much like the upper-class Colombo world it portrays, "Cinnamon Gardens" is a polished and elegant work. Five years ago Shyam Selvadurai, a Sri Lankan-born writer who has spent the better part of the past two decades in Canada, published his well-received first novel, "Funny Boy," a touching story about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality. Now he takes up the theme of high-society morality and hypocrisy in a second book that reads like a turn-of-the-century Sri Lankan novel of manners.

The trouble is that -- again, like the world it portrays -- "Cinnamon Gardens" is a little too polished. It lacks the idiosyncrasies and the unpredictability that would give it life. In aspiring to write a grand social epic, Selvadurai has put all the cultural and historical scaffolding a little too neatly in place. Historical incidents obviously gleaned from archival research feel artificially woven in; quotations from the Triukkural, an ancient work of Tamil philosophy, are copiously (and indiscriminately) cited, not only by several characters but also by the author, at the head of each chapter.

There is more than a little exoticization in the use of such elements, and like all exoticization, this case tends to emphasize the general at the expense of the particular. Selvadurai is so eager to tell the big social story that he neglects the human elements. Thus he grafts his characters' lives and relationships onto the age's great concerns; the results read like stereotypes. The Mudaliyar Navaratnam, the patriarch of the family at the center of the book, fights against universal suffrage and stifles his son Balendran's passion; he represents the old generation. Annalukshmi, the headstrong young teacher who rides a bicycle and refuses to marry, is the voice of women's emancipation. Mr. Jayaweera, the teacher from a rural village who fights for the rights of laborers, points up the economic exploitation of the colonial era. His conversations with the urbane and well-educated Annalukshmi -- he intrigues her with his talk of spirit possessions and snakebites in the country's interior -- sound like parodies of interclass interaction.

These characters and many more populate a sprawling narrative. They find love and friendship, and they struggle through conflicts with family members, social mores and their own repressed desires. Selvadurai holds his complicated story line together adeptly, but he is less successful at fleshing it out, at giving it emotional and psychological depth. When Balendran meets his long-lost lover, Richard, after 20 years (they had been forced apart when Balendran's father discovered the true nature of their relationship), the reunion is, all too characteristically, linguistically stilted and psychologically shallow. Balendran is "speechless" and "stung by [Richard's] words"; later, he feels "a terrible emptiness." "The sure apprehension of another mind / Is the mark of a God," runs another verse from the Triukkural (one that Selvadurai doesn't cite). It's the mark of a good novelist, too.

Curiously, as the veneer of respectability and propriety begins to wrinkle near the end of the book, Selvadurai's starched tone acquires a little life. Sentiments become less lachrymose, memories more vivid, and the conclusion, in contrast to the rest of the plot, is a surprise. There are traces in the final pages of the sensitivity and insight that distinguished "Funny Boy." The effect is uplifting, but also a little disappointing. Selvadurai obviously has tremendous potential; we'll have to wait at least until his next book to see it fulfilled.

By Akash Kapur

Akash Kapur is a contributing editor at Transition magazine and co-host of Stop the Death Penalty, an online petition against capital punishment.

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