Finding Arthur

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A review of a novel by Shama Perera

As I was reading Finding Arthur, the word picaresque kept coming unbidden to my mind, because the plot revolves around a journey during which interesting and scary things happen to the protagonists. The author, Shama Perera, told me that one of her aims in writing the book was to take the reader on a journey around Sri Lanka. “The whole project was motivated by trying to get many readers to fall in love with Sri Lanka and want to visit.” Picaresque is not quite the mot juste though, because the definition of the literary term is “an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.” The definition of picaresque was first coined in English in 1810 and is still used in modern literature today. Examples would be Don Quixote or Tom Jones. Arthur is certainly appealing but not a quite a picaro – he is not rough or dishonest. Arthur is morally impeccable and loyal.

Arthur is a Golden Labrador.

Searching Every Which Way

Perhaps Finding Arthur belongs to the category of  Quest Literature. Examples of Quest Literature would be Beowulf, The Grail Legend, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow, and, in cinema, John Ford’s masterpiece,  The Searchers. Arthur goes missing and the search for him takes a family all over the island and into some hair-raising situations, introducing them to some bizarre characters. More significantly, the quest brings out some features of relationships between friends and family which would not have been revealed had not Arthur’s kidnapping provided the catalyst. “There have been too many secrets kept in this family for too long.”


Brothers Dilan and Sujith run a bar in Mount Lavinia. The bar is named after Arthur the Golden Labrador who has been with them since  they were all puppies. Their parents, Amal and Nilani  Alwis, have been separated for some time but are not hostile to each other, even though their paths have not crossed much. Nevertheless, Nilani can write, “Words cannot express my disappointment in you and what you have done to our sons. I know everything.” There is a good deal of   banter among the family members. “We installed a security camera a few years ago to capture the lane because Thathi was concerned that there were undesirables wandering around the property. This was a dig at their bar and the customers they were attracting.” The boys can joke about their mother having affairs but, ”Amma chuckled to herself. They all knew full well that the only visitor to see her bedroom had been the occasional cockroach.”  Amal says to Ronnie, “‘We were happy, machan, we were very happy until we weren’t. I can’t even pinpoint when things started to change between us.”

Bibi (Brigitte) is the daughter of the forbidding Dr Fernando. Dr Fernando’s wife, Tana,  was killed in an accident and he has not recovered from his grief at losing her so young, still sad after ten years. Dr Fernando is not the ogre Dilan takes him for  but Dilan “had had a brief platonic liaison with one of the neighbour’s daughters and she had threatened to cut his bits off should he ever come near her again.” Bibi is pregnant and her father clearly thinks Dilan is a prime suspect for paternity.Dr Fernando takes a compassionate and relaxed attitude to Bibi’s pregnancy and does not press her to reveal the identity of the father. Bibi says, “He asked me who the father is, and when I refused to tell him, he just left the subject alone and has been carrying on as normal ever since.”

There are many intriguing plot twists but I do not want to spoil your enjoyment by giving away any surprises. The opening words intriguingly hint at the finale of the story: “The man had climbed over public safety barriers and up a dangerous stretch of rock to get there. He remains still in a trance for the longest time before inching his toes closer to the edge, until they peep over the stone. All he would need to do now is tilt forward.” The publicity material on the book mentions a heart-warming and engaging story and beautiful landscapes but there is clearly dark matter here amid the fun.One of the characters we encounter in passing on the trail of the missing Arthur is a brothel owner called Royce Perera. The questers think Arthur is inside Perera’s house and are surprised at the lack of security at the premises. “Mr Perera doesn’t worry about thieves; they all work for him anyway. There are no cameras anywhere on our street.”

Uncle Ronnie, a policeman married to Nilani’s sister, Bernie,  arranges for the searchers to have the services of a driver who has a number of useful skills and has experience of “special projects.” “Nimal is an exceptional driver; he speaks fluent Sinhala and Tamil and he is trained for combat as he is ex-special forces. Yes, he has a reputation for being able to handle himself––”.  Nimal proves to be a surprise: “Nimal was what can only be described as a jolly-looking fellow. He was on the small side, probably Amma’s height at around 5ft 4″ and a little rotund. He reminded them very much of a rather enthusiastic Labrador as he bounced about stacking boxes and having a chat with them all. Rather ironic given the nature of their trip. Nimal certainly didn’t look like an assassin.” Rather than the thug they were expecting, Nimal seemed to be a recruit from a meditation class although he did seem a little too efficient in putting an injured peacock out of its misery with a deft twist of the neck.

Shama writes with a light touch but some of the imagined permutations of relationships are dark enough for  August Strindberg or Tennessee Williams and some of the twists are complicated enough for a Shakespeare comedy. Another serious aspect among the frivolity is the theme of suicide. One of the reasons that Arthur is such a pillar of moral fortitude is that he saved Dilan’s life when he was feeling in the depths of despair. “Arthur, who had been sleeping in Dilan’s room, had woken up and started to watch Dilan. He gently stood up and walked over to him, placing his head on Dilan’s lap. But Dilan didn’t budge. He had continued to stare at the tablets in his hand. Arthur jumped up onto Dilan and started to lick his face which caused Dilan to come out of his trance…”

According to the publisher’s blurb, Finding Arthur is based on real events. I asked the author about this and she confirmed that there is a real Labrador called Arthur and he was taken in a three-wheeler and traced to the Northern province. However, she stated categorically that her father, the  late Royce Perera, who sadly left us during the pandemic, had never owned  a single brothel.

Shama Perera is a mother of three who lives in London. For 20 years she has worked in the corporate world, particularly in international law.  Shama’s first writing project was in 2018 when she produced a children’s book called Big Bad Bunty’s Boat Trip from Brazil. She was invited to participate in the Children’s programme at the Galle Literary festival in 2019 and enjoyed being amongst renowned writers like Anthony Horowitz and Sir David Hare. Finding Arthur was written during lockdown in London.  Shama has adapted the story into a six-part TV series in order to give potential tourists a visual introduction to the country. This is a well-organised piece of work, combining light and shade, with engaging characters, humour and serious themes. I look forward to the TV version. I will even buy myself a TV set.

Finding Arthur by Shama Perera is published by The Conrad Press and is available from Amazon and can be downloaded from Kindle.