Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

"A manual for cleaning women" by Lucia Berlin (Picador, 2016)

43 stories (about 400 pages) for £9.99 by a rediscovered writer whose work has been compared to Munro, Carver and Chekhov. She had a lively start to life (3 failed marriages and 4 sons by the time she was 28) and was an alcoholic for decades. From the age of 10 she had scoliosos, which was often painful. For a while she was an elective mute. Her mother had alcohol problems and may well have killed herself. Her output was intermittent - she did many jobs because she needed the money - but she ended up being a creative writing prof, dying in 2004.

As the introduction notes, her stories don't hang around. The first story begins in a laundromat. In the second paragraph the narrator recalls Mrs Armitage from a previous laundromat she visited - "I was a young mother then and washed diapers on Thursday mornings. She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn't see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays". It's zappy, with the speed of stand-up or Flash. Indeed, there are pieces which are little longer than a page.

"Point of View" begins by explaining, using a Chekhov story as an example, why the 3rd person can be more effective than the 1st. Readers "feel, hell, if the narrator thinks there is something in the dreary creature worth writing about there must be. I'll read on". So the story continues in the 3rd person, mostly. The final paragraph is

She hears someone drive up slowly to the phones. Loud jazz music comes from the car. Henrietta turns off the light, raises the blind by her bed, just a little. The window is steamed. The car radio plays Lester Young. The man talking on the phone holds it with his chin. He wipes his forehead with a handkerchief. I lean against the cool windowsill and watch him. I listen to the sweet saxophone play 'Polka Dots and Moonbeams.' In the steam of the glass I write a word. What? My name? A man's name? Henrietta? Love? Whatever it is I erase it quickly before anyone can see.

All I know of her life is from the notes in this book, but that's enough for me to view the pieces as thinly disguised autobiography - overlapping attempts at using the source material of her life. Fact and fiction merge -

  • "Her First Detox", about a young woman having to leave her 4 children (Ben, Keith, Joel and Nathan) behind for a week, doesn't have much of a story structure.
  • In the next story, "Phantom Pain", Lu is with her ill father. The details sound familiar.
  • Next is "Tiger Bites" where Lou, 19, with baby Ben is trying to forget her problems by attending a family reunion. She's met at the station by Bella Lynn (her cousin in another story) who warns her that Lou's mother is in hospital after a suicide attempt, her father's too angry with Lou to see her, and that Bella's loved husband got beaten up by Bella's relatives and has left her. When Bella finds out that Lou's husband has divorced her and she's 4 months pregnant, she arranges within minutes an abortion just over the border in Mexico, and gives her $500. Lou arrives at the clinic, decides (having paid) that she won't go through with it, suspects that another woman has died while she's at the clinic. Bella forgives and understands. It has a story structure, and some details that match facts in the introduction.
  • "Unmanageable" sounds like another anecdote that could be true. A mother wakes wondering how to get some booze before her kids wake up. Her son Nick, 13, has taken her wallet and car keys for safe keeping but she rustles up enough change. She goes out and gets some drink. When she returns, Nick disciplines her. Once she's got her sons off to school she leaves for the nearest liquor shop. In a later story, "So Long", she writes "I don't regret my alcoholism anymore. Before I left Carolina my youngest son, Joel, came to breakfast. The same son I used to steal from, who told me I wasn't his mother"

The tone as well as content can sound autobiographical. In "Silence" (which summarizes her early life, repeating details from other pieces) she writes about the exclusive Radford School of Girls - "I haven't talked much about this school. I don't mind telling people awful things if I can make them funny. It was never funny", and that "I gradually became a part of the Haddad family. I believe that if this had not happened I would have grown up to be not just neurotic, alcoholic, and insecure, but seriously disturbed. Wacko", and "I exaggerate a lot and get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually lie".

The pieces often aren't in the shape that we expect of stories. Is that a good thing? It perhaps means the pieces are better as part of a collection. Characters recur ("Conchi"; César - a diver/fisherman, a sister Sally, Kentshereve). Phrases (e.g. "she tried a noose but couldn't get the hang of it") and events recur. "Panteó de dolores" recapitulates themes -

The three [builders] made so much noise I said forget it, my sister is sick, grave, and you're too loud. Come back another time. I went back into her room but later began to hear some huffing and panting and muffled thuds. They were taking all the doors off the hinges so they could carry them up to the roof to fix them there without making any noise.
Am I really just mad because Sally's dying, so get mad at a whole country? The toilet is broken now. They need to take out the entire floor.
I miss the moon. I miss solitude.
In Mexico there is never not anyone else there. If you go into your room to read somebody will notice you're by yourself and go keep you company. Sally is never alone.

So does "So Long". Here's the ending -

Her ex-husband is a politician. He stops by almost every day, in a car with two bodyguards, and two escort cars with men in them. Sally is as close to him as I am with Max. So what is marriage anyway? I never figured it out. At now it is death I don't understand.
Not just Sally's death. My country, after Rodney King and the riots. All over the world, the rage and despair.
Sally and I write rebuses to each other so she doesn't hurt her lungs talking. Rebus is where you draw pictures instead of words or letters. Violence, for example, is a viola and some ants. Sucks is somebody drinking through a straw. We laugh, quietly, in her room, drawing. Actually, love is not a mystery to me anymore. Max calls and says hello. I tell him that my sister will be dead soon. How are you? he asks.

Nearly three-quarters through the book, "Let me see you smile" is a surprise, beginning with a male PoV (a defense attorney) then switching to the PoV of a previously mentioned female, back in time, before switching to the male again, then the female, who resembles the Lucia character. This time she's with Jesse, an under-18 musician friend of her son Ben, and she's in trouble with the law. The defense lawyer, having been initially dismissive of them, enjoys their company. He reassesses his life and splits with his wife. He asks Ben about his mother and boyfriend -

"they're feeding each other's destructive side, the part that hates themselves. He hasn't played, she hasn't written since they moved to Telegraph. They're going through his money like water, drinking it mostly."
"I never get the feeling that they are drunk," I said.
"That's because you've never seen them sober."

He talks to the woman (in this story she's Carlotta) - "Being with Jesse is sort of meditation. Like sitting zazen, or being in a sensory deprivation tank. The past and the future disappear"

A little later, "Mijito" repeats the double-threaded structure. This time the PoVs are a doctor's female helper (like a character we've met in earlier stories) and an under-age Mexican girl who comes illegally to the States, marries someone who is soon imprisoned, and is pregnant. The girl doesn't do much wrong but has a bad time. She seeks medical help (hence the PoVs intersect). Her baby dies, for which she's not entirely blameless.

"Carmen" piles on the suffering. Mona is living with Noodles, an addict. She has kids and she's pregnant. She agrees to be a drug-mule, flies off, nearly gets raped, returns with a condom of heroin. Her waters break as he tries the new supplies. She gets herself to hospital, has a baby girl, but the baby dies moments after birth. It's hard to feel sympathy for Mona, who puts herself at risk for the love of Noodles, though she "knew with a sick certainty that always if there were a choice between me and the boys or drugs, he'd go for the drugs.". Can things get worse? Yep. In the next piece, "Silence", we read that the narrator and her little sister Sally were sexually abused by their grandfather. It has a good (even happy!) ending.

The later pieces have more variety. "502" is too minor. In "Here it is Saturday" the first-person narrator is a 32 year old white male spending time in prison again. He and a friend like books and attend writing classes taught by an old, street-wise woman (Berlin taught in prisons). The final few paragraphs are good, though the genre's become a mite hackneyed nowadays. "B.F. and me" has a 70 year old narrator, another first for the book, though she has autobiographical arthritis and an oxygen tank. "Wait a Minute", which revisits her stay with her dying sister, has a more literary start - "Sighs, the rhythms of our heartbeats, contractions of childbirth, orgasms, all flow into time just as pendulum clocks placed next to one another soon beat in unison. Fireflies in a tree flash on and off as one. The sun comes up and it goes down. The moon waxes and wanes and usually the morning paper hits the porch at six thirty five". Then after a death, "when you return to your ordinary life all the routines, the marks of the day, seem like senseless lies. All is suspect, a trick to lull us, rock us back into the placid relentlessness of time"

The final piece, "Homing", is essay/biography, wondering how her life might have turned out if she'd married the boy from school who'd shared with her an interesting in geology - "I didn't realize I loved Willie since our closeness was so quiet, not nothing to do with the love girls talked about all the time, not like romance or crushes or ooh Jeeny loves Marvin". She reckons she'd still have trangressed.

"Point of View" , "A manual for cleaning women", "Toda Luna, Todo Año", "So Long", "Wait a minute" and "Homing" are my favourites, though they're not all stories. I'd have been interested in knowing the dates of publication - or better still, when they were written. The introduction says that "B.F. and Me" was the final piece she wrote, but 2 pieces follow this in the book.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

''The Best British Short Stories 2018", Nicholas Royle (ed) (Salt, 2018)

As ever, an informative and interesting introduction by Nicholas Royle. He's unearthed a few new sources of stories. I'm curious to know if he reads Stand, Forge, and the TSS publications. The biggest hit this year is "The Lonely Crowd" with 4 stories.

Commenting on an anthology that's unthemed isn't easy. It's tempting to point out pieces whose selection is puzzling, so I'll do that first. "Paymon's Trio" seems an old-fashioned spooky story. It may be good of its type, but is it really one of the best 20 stories of the year? "The Homing Instinct" doesn't stand out, and the ending's, well, risky at best. "Cwth" is a workmanlike treatment of a standard plot. "Sister" doesn't get anywhere. In "Waiting for the runners" an abandoned wife meets Julie, her successor, who was also abandoned by Danny. She's lost her looks. Their two sons are school-friends. Julie's little daughter has Danny's hair, and looks a little like Annie. Annie, the daughter of the narrator and Danny, died at 11, which seemed to have sparked Danny's departure. Maybe the daughter's resemblance to Annie sparked Danny's second departure. The meeting does the narrator good. Anyway, it seemed a fairly standard piece. "Swatch" isn't standard plot-wise, but it doesn't have enough. I can't see Lisa Tuttle's story ever being in the US equivalent of this anthology. One problem with it is that the 2-page story-within-a-story is repetitive. That's quite a high proportion of stories to have doubts about.

Another bunch of stories are saved by the final page or two, which justifies the rest. Until then the stories seemed well written but nothing more. I'm still unsure if they need to be quite as long as they are, and in at least one case I predicted the ending. As a whole I liked them though. An example is "A Thunderstorm in Santa Monica". And there were a few stories that began well but didn't continue quite as well - e.g. "How to be an alcoholic".

My favourite piece is maybe M. John Harrison's, or "We are methodists" (a woman gets into conversation over the course of 4 days with a plumber - ex commando). I was also impressed by "Life Grabs" (a father tries to piece together on video his missing son's life), "And three things bumped" (a man meets a taxi driver at intervals of years. Each time the driver recounts his life story. The stories don't match) and "The War" (Wars personified).

The editor doesn't seem to like consciously literary pieces. He likes rounded characters, but not complex domestic "Iowa workshop" dramas where nothing much happens. And for this anthology he's picked stories where a main character's often been affected by a death (of a child, quite often). He can only chose amongst what there is (and what doesn't cost too much to reprint). I didn't like this BBSS anthology as much as the others I've read - several good stories but no Wow stories - no stories that make me want to buy the book they come from.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

"The Distal Point" by Fiona Moore (Happenstance, 2018)

Poems from Magma, Poetry London, Stand, The Compass Magazine, Poetry Review, Rialto, etc. And it's a PBS Recommendation! There are poems from her earlier well-received pamphlets, Night letter and The only reason for time. You'd better buy the book before, like its predecessors, it sells out. My write-ups of the pamphlets mention the binaries they deal with (Night/Day, Death/Life) and the mediating agencies (moon, dreams, waking up, ghosts). They're here too, though I won't repeat the descriptions.

I had to look up the meaning of this book's title. In anatomy it's the furthest point from the point of attachment. There are several poems about private and public grief. Thematically there's much about might-have-beens - keepsakes (both objects and memories) and symbols (shared and private); what changes, what is remembered and what to let go.

The first section deals (I'm presuming) with more personal issues, ending with the title poem, which uses the geological meaning of "distal", the narrator at the end of a shingle spit - "We stand at the point of greatest change ... No-one will stand here again" - which leads to a section where issues are more worldly and political, though there's room also to contemplate bullocks, striped timetables and plug-holes. The final section is more miscellaneous, returning to some older themes and adding some new ones.

I'll deal with just one poem this time, and a few tendencies. Here's an extract from "Fine Autumn Morning" by Seferis - "Has anyone thought of telling a mountain's fortune as you read the palm of a hand? Has anyone thought of it? ... O that insistent thought shut up in an empty box, wilfully beating the cardboard without pause all night long like a mouse gnawing the floor". In this book's poem "that insistent thought", a river reflects onto the white ceilings of a home, readable like a palm. Its smell invades the house. In the attic there's a mouse. It's captured, put in a cardboard box which is left on the quay. In the night the mouse manages to "act out the mind that concentrates on one thing". By morning there's a hole in the box, in the side pointing to the water. What happened to the mouse? Maybe it "stopped on the edge of something immense" - perhaps life (which rivers often symbolise) but it could well be death.

Final lines tend to underline their finality - "soaring towards/ destruction; the higher the more complete", "even/ the expected, the moment of death, must be a shock", "stopped/ on the edge of something immense", "one day you/ could become space debris too", "their finishing line", "at the end of the world as we know it", etc

Line-breaks still puzzle me. When I was wondering whether "The Numbers" needs its first stanza, I wondered what the line-breaks added - if nothing, then aren't they just padding? Poems like "The Cell at Plötzensee" convey factual information, making the piece feel like part of an essay, a feeling compounded by the vocabulary and sentence structure, yet it's broken into tidy triplets. "The Tower" is a bit that way too. Some poems are structured like a summarised debate, with arguments and counter-arguments - "In the middle of a discussion about brexit" (actually about how Wall's Neapolitan ice-cream was made) and "Waking up in a basement" (about what raises awareness of one's death). Again I wondered what the line-breaks did.

Forms

There are many though few are standard.

  • "On Dunwich Beach" has 6 couplets, each ending with "for you"
  • "Palace of culture" has stanzas of line-length 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Three of the stanzas end with "in the realm of the angel of death", the 2 other stanzas end with a variation of that phrase
  • "Hunger" is stanza-palindromic (i.e. first stanza = final stanza, etc)
  • "Taking visitors to Auschwitz" is line-palindromic
  • In "Quake", "nothing + nothing is an answer" occurs 4 times
  • 9 of the lines in "Loukanikos" end in "Loukanikos", half of the rest rhyme with "its"
  • In "The rose, the stars" each 9-lines stanza begins with an italicised sentence fragment whose words are recombined to form the final sentence.
  • "To the moon" is in 3-lined stanzas with syllable count 10/4/10.

Other reviews

  • Emma Lee (This collection is split into three sections “Overwinter”, “Exclave” and “The Rose, the Stars”. The first builds a portrait of love and bereavement, mostly by exploring memories [] The second section concerns itself with boundaries, particularly leaving a comfort zone [] The third section feels the most contemporary)
  • John Field (Moore’s is a rare gift. We occasionally encounter artists, gatekeepers, who work at the limits of the known, of the utterable. Their work is shamanistic – rooted to experience, woven from the fabric of the universe. Moore would, doubtless contend this quasi-spiritual claptrap but her work achieves this.)
  • Ian Brinton (Fiona Moore’s convincing understanding of the power of immediacy can be felt in both ‘Taking Visitors to Auschwitz’ and ‘After Five Years’. In the former she opens with a clarity of statement which seems to offer superficial realisation but which acts as a mask for much deeper moral understanding)

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

"In other words" by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury, 2017)

A book of articles (dual language - English/Italiano) that initially appeared in Internazionale. In the "Author's Note" she writes that "Apart from obligatory correspondence, I have written exclusively in Italian for more than two years" (p.xiii). She wrote the book in Italian, in Italy. It's translated by Ann Goldstein.

She was born in London, and brought up in the States, using Bengali until she went to school. After that, Bengali remained the preferred language at home, her mother trying to stay as Indian as possible. She's multi-talented (several degrees, a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies, a Pulitzer for her first book of short stories - though she writes "I received a prize that I was sure I did not deserve, that seemed to me a mistake", p.167).

I know several people who suddenly had to cope in a new language. I've read about people who, because of brain injury, etc, struggle with language. I'm not convinced that Lahiri's experiences of learning a new language are any more interesting than theirs. There's no humour in this book, and her insights and observations sound rather mundane to me. She thinks that

  • "Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility" (p.41)
  • "reading in a foreign language is the most intimate way of reading" (p.163)

Even her views on a work's scaffolding sound familiar. What is interesting is why such a good writer in English should abandon writing it for 2 years. It's only as late as p.153 that she writes "I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali". She thinks that "No one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are part of me. ... I'm a writer: I identify myself completely with language, I work with it. And yet the wall keeps me at a distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go, so that I wonder if perhaps the wall is me" (p.142). Adding to her problems is her feeling that "a sense of imperfection has marked my life. I've been trying to improve myself forever, correct myself, because I've always felt I was a flawed person" (p.111) and "I write to feel alone. Ever since I was a child it has been a way of withdrawing, of finding myself" (p.185)

And what of her own family? Though we learn early on about how languages affected her early life, it isn't until p.136 that we learn about whether her husband and children are with her, and how they communicate.

Being a learner of Italian I was interested in what she found difficult. She makes a note of the Italian words she doesn't know - "Rereading the notebook, I notice certain words that I have to write more than once, that resist my memory. Simple but stubborn (fruscio, schianto, arguto, broncio" (p.49). I have a similar issue with some words. The translation seemed fine to me though on p.222 "uno scacco matto" is translated as "a dead-end", which may be correct but it's a surprise, because literally it means "checkmate".

Other reviews

  • Joseph Luzzi
  • Tessa Hadley (I’m not so sure about the style in In Other Words, at least as it is rendered in translation (I can just about read the Italian, but can’t judge it). Sometimes its abruptness just feels blunt ... Lahiri’s book feels starved of actual experiences of Italy, or reflections on how that language gives form to its different world.)

Saturday, 28 July 2018

"L'amore a Londra e in altri luoghi" by Flavio Soriga (Bompiani, 2009)

The first story, "Aprile", is much the longest. In 45 pages in the first person a male describes his life episodically, developing themes - island vs city; poetic past vs prose present; his friend Claudio's life compared with his own; his mother, grandmother and religion; the father who left; forgiveness; and his niece. We're introduced to different kinds of love - religious, mother/son, life-long between males, carnal with a stranger, homosexual. He meets his father after a long time. As well as slipping between the threads, the fragments also go forwards and backwards in time. Each episode can be 4 or 5 lines, or a page or so. It's a structure I've often wanted to use. The length requirement deterred me from writing such a piece.

In "Islington" a couple meet again after 5 years. The woman is married and pregnant, the man is in a gay relationship. They think about getting together again because both are in compromised relationships. The woman says

forse i momenti più belli non sono, diciamo, gli incontri speciali, le prime volte, come si crede, forse sono solo i rincontri, le prime volti di nuovo, dopo anni (p.67)

"Libera i cani" is also set in London. The main character, Elias, may well have appeared in the previous story. It's also episodic and flips backwards and forwards in time, though in this case along a single narrative arc. Elias has sex with a relative (a theme picked up from the first story), but here it's a gay relationship. He has trouble coming out to his parents.

"Autunno" is 4 pages long. An aging, dying actor still thinks he's attractive to woman.

In "Il congiacente" Marco and Alice go to the wedding of a school friend of Alice having met 2 months before. There are flashbacks to when they first met, and to the problems Alice had splitting from her fiancé after she met Marco.

"Sud" is 3 pages long and contains this self-regarding section -

`È un tardo pomeriggio da cartolina', gli viene in mente mentre il telefono si decide a squillare; 'È un pomeriggio da città del Sud, sotto la luna che arriva i gabbiani cantano storie d'amore a chi vuole sentire'; se gli fosse venuta un'ora fa, una frase così, sarebbe finita nella storia che ha appena finito di scrivere, un vecchio attore malato e una cameriera bellissima dal nome fatale, e sabbia e palme, ma adesso è tardi, adesso le frasi sono per lui, per la vita vera (p.119)

Spanish words slip into "El Presidente" - an old president and his young mistress have to helicopter out of the palace - there's an uprising.

"Candele" is at the fairy-tale end of the magic realism spectrum.

In the end there was more variety than the early stories led me to expect.

Other reviews

  • Goodreads
  • Carlo Vaccari (la lunghezza molto (troppo!) diversa dei racconti rende difficile prendere il ritmo del libro)

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

"Distant Light" by Antonio Moresco (Archipelago books, 2016)

Translated by Richard Dixon. 153 square pages. A man's living in an abandoned village. He drives over 20 km when he needs provisions. Alone so much with nature he asks himself and living things many questions -

  • "But why are you always so angry" he asks a wasp. "But what sort of life do you have?" he asks toads (p.27-28). They don't answer, but swallows do. They agree they're crazy.
  • "What disaster! What horror!", I say, moving away so as not to look. "To be in a hailstorm at the exact moment of flowering! After all that vast strange chemical activity in the bulbs underground [] The mechanical process of blooming can no longer be slowed down, can no longer be stopped. and then, all of a sudden, the lash of cold freezing rain, all those pieces of ice that suddenly bear down from the sky against those white calyxes that had only just been invented ... (p.50)
  • Who knows if they know where [swallows] are going? Whether at least one of them knows and is able to tell the others, or whether they decide on the route once they're on their way, in those first immense circles full of myriads of tiny brains (p.78)

He muses -

  • "I walk and walk so as to feel this movement of bones and muscles that continues onward in the dark. And nerves and tendons and connective tissues and vertebrae. And the brain matter that sends the signals that trigger this movement which seems involuntary to me, as though it were happening somewhere else" (p.107).
  • "Plants go on dying and being reborn, dying again, everything inside the same circle of created pain" (p.147)

Beyond a gorge on a wooded ridge he sees a light each night. A UFO? He discovers a boy living alone there. About halfway through the book the boy says he's not alive, that he goes to night-school. The man checks the boy's story, discovering that several boys leave the unlit village school late at night - "How sad it is for dead children like that when they leave dark schools, at night, alone! But then ... isn't it just as sad for those alive?" (p.100). The boy says that he killed himself.

The man begins to visit the boy frequently. The boy tells him that he's repairing a nearly house for him. One night, back in his house, the man hears knocking. He going downstairs, opens the door. A man (I thought it would be the boy) asks "What's happened?" The reply is "I've killed myself".

Other reviews

  • Cory Johnston (It dwells on esoteric questions, but also provides unsettling insight into the darkest depths of the human condition, as well as a uniquely complex rendering of its polarity. There are secrets to be uncovered here, it seems to whisper, if only you can pluck them from the shadows.)
  • Terri Lewis (Moresco’s magic is that he is able, through words, to bring the reader to the ineffable. Anyone willing to absorb the language will find many hints about what lies beneath the surface, and thus be prepared for the last chapter, when the tenor of the writing changes and the mystery is revealed. The final unveiling is completely satisfying, even though it is likely that each reader will have a different, personal understanding of the events. Most will put down the book haunted by its beauty and full of lingering questions about the progression of life toward death and our place in the world around us.)
  • Stiliana Milkova
  • Kirkus Reviews (Though the ending is appropriately inscrutable, it is somewhat disappointing in its tampered uncertainty. Despite this muteness, the imagery and language glow throughout.)

Saturday, 21 July 2018

"Subjunctive Moods" by C.G. Menon (Dahlia Publishing, 2018)

Stories from Bare Fiction, Bridport Anthology, Lonely Crowd, etc. Several competition successes too.

Language

I took a while getting used to the language. It's not pared down in the standard way, the way I've been dutifully employing for years. Adjectives and metaphors abound. They often impress, but they can also collide, repeat, puzzle, or crowd out the meaning. Inanimate objects and substances are imbued with spirit. Light is especially lively -

  • "a brassy light slaps the leaves awake" (p.7)
  • "The sunlight was filmy, filtering through an immense cloud of mosquitoes that boiled above the patient hills" (p.28) - filmy? patient?
  • "Pale spring light filters over the grassy hills to drip onto the hospital" (p.65) - more filtering
  • "a gritty dawn banged its teeth against the windows" (p.114)
  • "Light puddles out from the hotel" (p.162), "I walk up the crooked path, puddled with light" (p.165) - from the same story, same narrator - which is fair enough.

Here are some other fragments that caught my eye -

  • "Dilip grunts with satisfaction as he glides the car into a painted parking space. It's the sort of arrangement he likes; everything laid out with the crusts cut off. Inside there's a hygienic lobby, sliced from the garden by tinted glass" (p.3)
  • "There's a faint edge of irritation in her voice, a flicker of pity at the end. She'd rather I answered back, presented a smaller target. Covering so much ground isn't fair on her" (p.17)
  • "The verandah gate opens and a bearded fleet of uncles and uncles-by-marriage begin to steam up like full-bellied sailing ships" (p.34) - steam or sail?
  • "I'm too old for playing games, the tin of Pledge tells me, and the dust-rag adds that I'm certainly old enough to know better. It's only a favour, I insist, and the room pulls itself together a little, clicks its heels" (p.57)
  • "The nurse had booked me in with a cool, watery interest that muscled its way through all my good manners" (p.66) - a cool, watery interest that muscled?
  • "A trickle of customers spill out onto the road" (p.70) - a trickle that spills?
  • "We'd driven through outer suburbs barnacled with hardware stores and retail parks" (p.76) - "barnacled" is more effective for the small stores than the expanses of retail parks
  • "Next to Robert I felt prissy, felt soaped and civilised ... He called me Net instead of Annetta, as though I were a trap spread out to catch him ... I could hear a hiss of steam and muffled, sudsy clatter ... Robert climbed the stairs, landing a jolly, smacking kiss on her slipping smile ... a sort of soaped-clean sickness ... I could see myself in the filmy shadows of a mirror, trembling with a jellyfish frailty ... Marie's onions rolled in the sink like lifebuoys ... Robert and Marie adrift on their little raft of light" (p.76-78) ... "when I was first married and beached safe on the sands of my own life." (p.86) - here the imagery conforms to themes (soap, sea) that aren't related to the Australian setting. "filmy" reappears here. It still puzzles me. "sodden clatter" is on p.120.
  • "Market women trudged across it with baskets balanced on their heads and worries nailed to their feet, while schoolboys skimmed back and forth in ragged clumps like swallows" (p.90) - nailed? I can imagine swallows skimming, but not in ragged clumps. Are the boys in rags? I doubt it.
  • "It's clean up on those heights. Clean as things that laugh in the night, clean as riddles on an empty hillside, clean as blood on a stone" (p.97) - it's hard getting blood from a stone, easy to clean it off
  • "with a make-no-mistake air" (p.114), "a lordly welcome-to-you-all air" (p.116), "in a stretched, make-the-best-of-it way" (p.118) - these all appear in one story with one narrator, which is ok.
  • "The curtains were pulled back when I woke again, letting in a shivering daylight. Outside I could see our greyish pocket of lawn licked with frost" (p.116) - shivering daylight? Heat haze? No. And is the "I" outside or the lawn, or both? A pocket is licked?
  • "I could see a gleam of a single red stone in her ear. It gave her a lopsided, awkward look, like a bird caught by the leg" (p.121) - that's effective
  • "bone-cold water" (p.121) - bones' dryness is usually remarked upon.
  • "a smile tucked in at the edges of her round blue eyes" (p.122), "her smile locked, settling taut and wedged beneath her cheekbone" (p.125), "smiles tucked into cheeks" (p.146) - from two stories
  • "Annie beats the disapproving wings of her shawl" (p.161), "Her talons cut off my unasked questions" (p.165) - the story contains many birds. The first extract here works for me. The second is more problematic - I think of talons as feet

I suspect I was more distracted by the language than other readers will be.

The rest

I liked the variety of the plots and kept wanting to read on. The tendency towards lyrical, unresolved endings is one I sympathize with. First, some summaries -

  • The Ampang Line - A man and a young woman visit their old house, now a hotel. She's beginning to think their relationship won't last (online as Skin deep)
  • Subjunctive Moods - A Russian girl, Katya, stays on an exchange visit with a family that includes Sara, who has an eating disorder. She makes Katya move to another family. She thinks she sees Katya for years afterwards in the press, etc.
  • Aunty - Leila's ghost haunts, is accused of playing tricks. They should have put her ashes in a better container. Stories about her emerge, are cross-checked. Coincidentally things improve when the ashes are transferred from an ice-cream tub to a glass bottle.
  • Watermelon Seeds - An adolescent girl has her first crush on a boy, which causes her to ditch her close female friend, Peony, giving up her role in the school play that she and Peony had rehearsed. Later she moves to the UK and marries. Many years later she'll watch a Cantonese film, but the heroine will never be Peony and besides, she won't understand a word.
  • So Long, So Long - Arjun, a hen-pecked doctor whose career has plateaud, sees an escaped prisoner through a window, and decides to escape himself, even if it's only a token rebellion. First he has to accept the loss of his "little god" self image.
  • For you are Julia - After a 30 year marriage a woman meets an old flame in Grantchester. He asks her to leave the country with him. She says no, with regret
  • Clay for Bones - Another cremated ancestor speaks, first re-appearing when the protagonist miscarriaged. Now she's having another scan. She watches a girl set free a chick. She finds someone's lost ball and takes it home.
  • The Name of Things - A female student visits West Australia, stays with a couple who seem to be having difficulties. There are some awkward moments. The husband seems interested in her. She hears later that the wife dies
  • Dust and Spices - A boy thinks he's in an old photo. His father recalls doing the same. On a train they stop at the station where the father's father was born. Here's the ending - "The sun slants flat through the carriage and our shadows stretch out along the ground until they're so tall, as tall as our fathers, but nobody gets out and the train begins to pull away"
  • Foxgloves - Tracey (single mother) wants to call her new baby Merlin. Sandra, her social worker, tries talking her out of it. Her first child is already in foster care because Tracey liked going out too much. She expects this new baby to be taken away too, somewhere. The ending is "She'll keep watch all her life, while the nights fall and the years rush past, while the foxgloves shake and she slowly grows old"
  • I See You in Triplicate - Domestic things remind Caroline of her ex. She meets Ros at Spanish class, hoping that this new friendship will help.
  • Peacocks - Young Asha bought expensive earrings for her grandmother, who she thinks was a princess back in India, living in a palace. At the end Asha's mother tells her "It was just like here".
  • Daylight Saving - In the extra hour when clocks go back, Sarah writes letters to her ex, Colin. She doesn't send them. She's friends with Colin's wife, Amber, who says that she and Colin made love in that extra hour. Sarah uses the letters to make Amber think that Colin's having an affair with her.
  • Farne Island - 2 widows on holiday watch a younger, newly married couple at a nearby restaurant table. Had one of the husband's been unfaithful? The ending is "'I'm sorry, dear,' she murmured instead, and thought hard and brightly about details, about packing and timetables and fog rolling past the Farne Islands to a limitless sea"
  • Seascapes - An old, confused woman (originally from Madras?) married to Bill suddenly takes a bus trip to visit a cairn near Middlesborough to deal with the past
  • Rock Pools - A woman living by the sea separated from her bird-expert husband soon after the marriage, though he returns yearly for work reasons. This will be his last visit. Lots of bird imagery. Towards the end there's "Jon observes my migration patterns from the living room to the kitchen. I'm being driven by hunger and silence"

There's often a symbolic sub-plot that a lyrical ending returns to. Several stories feature contrasting cultures or life-styles, the protagonist conflicted. Coming to terms with the past (which may have been in another country) is an abiding problem, objectified as wondering how to deal with grandparents - even cremated, they don't go away. Ghosts/ashes features in at least 4 stories. Dealing with the ashes (the right container; the right way to scatter them) matters. In "Subjunctive Moods", "Foxgloves" and "I See You in Triplicate" a person from the past persists as a source of memories or mistaken identity. And there's quite a lot of infidelity too.

I wasn't keen on "For You are Julia", "Clay for Bones" or "The Name of Things". I liked the ending of "I see you in triplicate" and of "Peacocks". I liked the idea of how the extra hour was differently used in "Daylight Savings", though the plot's unconvincing. I liked "Farne Island" most.

Other reviews

  • an interview
  • Melissa Fu (The collection is a masterclass, showcasing the many elements of a successful short story. ... The initial stories establish a wide geographic and thematic scope ... I found the later stories in the collection to be more subtle, slightly quieter [] By that time, Menon’s writing had earned my trust and I was willing to work a little harder for more complex meanings to arise. )
  • Peter Gordon (A detour or two to someplace like Australia aside, the stories are more or less evenly divided between a mostly Indian Malaysia and a musty England; she seems equally at home in either … Menon’s talent is best illustrated when she takes England, Malaysia and India and gives them a mix, as in the book’s virtuoso lead paragraph … in them all, the protagonist has somewhat out of sync with her (and it is usually, but not always, her) situation: hoping that that things aren’t quite the way they seem, or are. “If life were different …”, but it isn’t.)