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Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai

Cinnamon Gardens - Shyam Selvadurai, André Bernard

For some reason I expected this to be a dense, literary sort of book, which it is not. In fact it is light historical fiction, an easy and quick read that should appeal to the popular imagination; I’m surprised it’s as little-known as it is.

 

In 1920s Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), Annalukshmi is a young teacher, more interested in career advancement than finding a suitable husband, to the chagrin of the upper-class society to which she belongs. Her uncle, Balendran, appears to be a respectable middle-aged husband and diligent son, but is secretly gay. The plot involves the reappearance of Balendran’s long-lost lover and Annalukshmi’s family’s attempts to marry her off.

 

Selvadurai is a good storyteller: this is an entertaining book with sympathetic characters, and I read it fairly quickly. It is on the fluffy side though; the characterization is not especially deep, nor is there anything particularly fresh in its standard “forbidden love” and “independent woman wants more from life than her society offers” plotlines. Sure, there aren’t many books out there by and about gay South Asian men, but Balendran’s plot still reads like a standard “forbidden love” story; little would have changed had he been in love instead with a woman other than his wife. Even his conservative father seems more upset by Balendran’s brother’s choice of a lower-class wife than with Balendran’s sexuality.

 

In fact, the one unusual element of this book is the ending; instead of culminating in “love conquers all!”, it leaves both protagonists precisely where they began. Annalukshmi barely has a character arc at all; she evades without too much difficulty a couple of attempts to marry her off, meets a couple of guys whom she finds moderately attractive, and ultimately decides to keep her options open while meanwhile pursuing career advancement. A wise choice but not a particularly interesting one, especially since it presents no change from her attitude at the beginning; one wonders why we’re reading a book about this period in her life at all. Balendran has a more complete story, in that he makes definite choices – but only to reaffirm in the face of temptation the same choices he’d made twenty years before, to remain with his wife and keep up the charade even though it isn’t his true nature. Well, he does decide he wants his lover to remain in his life. As a pen pal.

(show spoiler)

 

So, the overall effect of the book is underwhelming. Add to that the writing, which is accessible but has a noticeable number of grammatical errors. On the other hand, the setting is interesting and colorfully drawn. Ultimately, this is a fine book for light reading; just don’t expect anything more.