The Play's the Thing

The plots of three fine new novels hinge on the same rite of passage: the annual school play.

Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, by Shyam Selvadurai (Tundra, $18.95; ages 12-up) is being marketed as a young adult novel, which it is, insofar as its hero is a 14-year-old boy. Yet it is also that rare thing, a coming-of-age story that transcends labels and deserves to be called literature, plain and simple. Shyam Selvadurai is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian. Like his two adult novels, Swimming in the Monsoon Sea evokes the densely layered, richly textured life of 20th-century Colombo, a city redolent of past empire and present discord. Also like them, it filters that steamy, teeming world through a gay sensibility, in this case a dawning one (though "gay" in that sense is hardly in its vocabulary). It's 1980, and young Amrith's state of mind reflects the storminess of the monsoon season. "A black mood . . . swept over him like a wave." Amrith's parents are dead, mysteriously so (for us, not for him, though he keeps busy denying what his "traitorous mind" cannot forget), and he lives with his mother's well-to-do friend Aunty Bundle, nice Uncle Lucky and their daughters Selvi and Mala. Kindness isn't the problem. Self-knowledge, or lack of it, is. That begins to change with the convergence of two momentous events: Amrith is picked to play Desdemona in his school's production of "Othello," and his brash 16-year-old cousin Niresh arrives from Canada for a visit. Amrith is instantly, innocently, smitten. But when Niresh falls for sweet-natured Mala, Amrith learns, literally in the monsoon sea, what the murderous jealousy dramatized in the play really feels like. The moment is, of course, cathartic. What follows isn't happiness exactly, but a tenuous self-acceptance that allows Amrith to face all his nightmares, including the one involving his parents. The novel ends with Selvi's birthday; Amrith, "with a small smile to himself in the mirror, went out to join the party.""Party" here obviously signifies life, or something equally big and abstract, but this is a real party, too, the preparations for which we've followed throughout, from food-shopping in Colombo's markets to the purchase of Amrith's shirt, handmade by Cut-and-Put the tailor, to Aunty Bundle's comic battle to get the hole in the roof fixed. As much a paean to a time, a place and a class as a coming-out story, Monsoon Sea puts the standard American "teen issue" novel to shame.

What Erika Wants, by Bruce Clements (Farrar Straus Giroux, $16; ages 12-up). Don't be fooled by this novel's apparent flatness of affect. Clements, a subtle and versatile writer, knows what he's doing. Erika is a bright ninth-grader caught in a custody quarrel between her pathetic, manipulative parents. Not surprisingly, she has tuned out. "Often," a psychologist noted after her parents' divorce, "her facial expression became 'flat,' with little outward indication of what she was feeling at any time." Then there's Erika's court-appointed lawyer, Jean, whose whole job calls for a cool, clinical air. But there's a lot of feeling swirling between the tight-lipped lines as Jean tries to figure out what to tell the judge Erika really wants. The signals seem hopelessly mixed. Luckily, Erika lands a big part in the school play -- of all things, it's "The Winslow Boy," a mid-century courtroom tearjerker based on a celebrated 1912 British trial. As the drama coach says, "Acting in a play is like being in another country." Switching between Erika's and Jean's viewpoints, the novel shows a girl gaining perspective and confidence, helped by her acting and her "smart lawyer," to the point where she can make a self-preserving choice. Understatement pays off; the climax, on the play's last night, packs an astonishing emotional wallop.

Replay, by Sharon Creech (HarperCollins, $15.99; ages 8-12). Creech, a multiple Newbery honoree, sometimes dips into sentimentality (see Granny Torrelli Makes Soup). In this perfectly constructed novel for middle readers, some schmaltz-alert elements are present -- huge Italian-American family, wise grownup, sweet, precocious kid -- but Creech keeps her balance. Leo, 12, feels as squashed as a sardine by his siblings, who call him Fog Boy for his habit of daydreaming. Turns out his dreams are more than that: They're replays, in which he shapes troublesome reality to his liking. "Leo's brothers and sister vaporize into the ether, leaving Leo an only child, a beloved only child, whose parents dote on him. . . . " . He's excited, then, when Mr. Beeber, the drama teacher, writes a real play about a reality-transforming storyteller titled "Rumpopo's Porch." Leo, vindicated, is even fine with his bit part as the old crone, though naturally he's soon dreaming up his own play, "The Old Crone's Porch." The book comes in scenes, not chapters, and includes a cast list and the complete, very funny text of "Rumpopo's Porch."

-- Elizabeth Ward