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Weekly Alibi Historical Romance

'Cinnamon Gardens'

By Mary Walling Blackburn

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999: 

Cinnamon Gardens: A Novel by Shyam Selvadurai (Hyperion, hardcover, $23.95)

Despite the historical setting and a brief nod to labor party politics, the suffragette movement and colonial rule, this novel bears all the markings of a historical romance. Selvadurai spends a lot of time describing the cut and fabric of saris and house decor. This predilection for costumery and decoration, coupled with infatuations and betrayals within a primarily upper-class set of characters, seals its fate as a speedy read for the politically-minded romantic.

The main characters of Cinnamon Gardens are plagued -- as is the colony in which they live -- by the disparities between what is and what should be. The action takes place in the duty-striated world of the upper-class Tamil Ceylonese in the late 1920s. Balandren, a Cambridge-educated, married man, struggles with his love for another man and his loyalties to his family. Annalukshmi grapples with her desires and her family's marital expectations. A young man who is enamored with British ways but is not wealthy or white enough to ever be anything but an outsider is described as struggling with "the space between who he was and who he felt he should be." Both country and characters endeavor to dismantle this disparate space created by the colonialism of British rule. Annalukshmi and Balandren, in fits and starts, struggle to decolonize selves that have been exploited by the demands of British colonialism and sexist Tamil traditions.

Although Selvadurai is not particularly poetic in his use of language, the novel is written well enough to instill concern in the reader. Will he leave her? Will she run away? Will he reject him again? And on a more political level, will Ceylon gain a modicum of independence? Will universal suffrage prove detrimental to minority groups? Will the abusers become the abused? Or do we always lead a double life: colonized while colonizing, professing love but knowing it's not the truth, pretending to be a friend to those we consider our enemies ...

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