I am a person who totally judges books by their covers, despite all the warnings. Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai is one such book – though I was intrigued more by the title than anything (even with a gorgeous book design). It pulled me in even more with the jacket description of the novel. It’s a realistic fiction set in 1920s Ceylon – when Sri Lanka was ruled by the British – focusing on Balendran and his niece, Annalukshmi. Balendran is a gay man married to a woman and raising a family while his niece wishes to pursue her dreams. The hardest thing for me about reading the book was that sometimes it was difficult for me to keep track of the very developed story arcs for both of the main protagonists. While it is an interesting take and I definitely enjoy alternating points of view in stories, this could easily have been two novels set in the same ‘verse.
What’s interesting is that we do get to see two viewpoints from someone who is already established, Balendran, and someone who is just starting her journey, Annalukshmi. Her story mirrors what I suspect was her uncle’s early struggle to fulfill his role in society and do what was expected. Both have, in their twenties, a choice in front of them and how they approach the choice is affected by generation, gender, economics, and sexuality. Even as I believe it could have been separate novels, the contrast of how they approach life and constraints and opportunity is illuminating. In some ways, as a reader, the desire to yell at them to stand up more for themselves can be pretty strong for most of the novel. And it’s not even just these two – it’s other members of their family as well. When any of them do, it’s quite satisfying; however, I’d say it’s a testament to how well we are able to identify with the struggle to balance expectations and self-fulfillment. It is always easier to see characters in a book saying or doing the thing we wish they wouldn’t say or do but falling into the same trap ourselves.
Neither of them really fit the mold of their filial and cultural expectations, but they have a desire to not let their families down while staying true to themselves. Given the era it was set, it is no surprise that this is the conflict that drives the story. The attitudes exhibited during every interaction eloquently sum up the resolve of Annalukshmi and Balendran to stay on their respective courses or not and it moves along at such a pace that it’s a difficult story to put down. I found myself constantly wanting to know what was going to happen next, how Anna and Bala (as they are affectionately called, among other names of respect), will react, be challenged, or challenge others.
This is a novel that makes you pay attention to every bit of dialogue, every adjective, every feeling and action that occurs in the story lest you miss something. It definitely utilizes language patterns common around 100 years ago in terms of formality, which may be a turn-off for some people. However, Selvadurai uses this dialogue and, at times lofty exposition, to really round out his characters in such distinct ways. He writes so we empathize with every character, see the surroundings, and in many ways experience the book with our senses. It may frustrate us how long it takes us to get to the climax of the story but it is ever so worth it because we are made fully aware of motives, personality, and all the reasons why the climax’s resolution works the way it does.
Selvadurai grew up in Sri Lanka before living in Canada and it is clear he still has strong ties to his home country. The novel was simultaneously illuminating regarding cultural and historical differences from 2016 US as well as adept at pulling me into all-too-familiar struggles, loves, pain, and joy.