Interpreter of maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, 1999

After delighting in another Victorian crime fiction series (the Lady Emily Ashton books by Tasha Alexander, recommended by the ever reliable A Work In Progress) I had some difficulty on deciding which book to read next. I felt like a book of short stories, which fortunately my TBR shelf isn’t short of. But then I had a few false starts- books which just didn’t match my mood. Dubliners by James Joyce? too much character, not enough plot. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter? too unsettling. The Portable Virgin by Anne Enright? too fragmentary.

So, rather wearily, I started Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Her first story, A Temporary Matter, begins with the innocuous statement:

“The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight PM. A line had gone down in the last snowstorm, and the repairmen were going to take advantage of the milder evenings to set it right. The work would affect only the houses on the quit tree-lined street, within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived three years.”

From there, husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba slowly start to communicate again after months of silence following the still birth of their first child. By the end, what they say to each other left me in tears and eager to keep reading this Pulitzer prize winning collection. So eager that I can wholeheartedly agree with the Scotsman quote on the back cover: “After reading three of these stories, I found myself rationing the remaining six to try to make the book last longer.”

Each story features people (and they do seem like people, not only characters) with some connection to India (especially Bengal), be they in America or India. So you meet (and feel for):

- Mr Pirzada, a botanist working in the States for a year without his family, who are still in Dacca when the Pakistani civil war of 1971 breaks out,

- Mr Kapasi, a tour guide and translator hired by an Americanized Indian family, the Das’s,

- Boori Ma, a stairwell sweeper in Calcutta,

- Miranda, a Boston newcomer having an affair with a banker called Dev,

- Elliot, an eleven-year old whose single mum organises for him to be babysat by recent immigrant Mrs. Sen,

- Sanjeev and Twinkle, a couple who inherit “a sizable collection of Christian paraphernalia” in their new home,

- Bibi Halder, who suffers from a mysterious condition,

- and just one of the many penniless Bengali bachelors … struggling to educate and establish ourselves abroad.”

Lahiri sensitively and convincingly depicts each of these lives and leaves you longing to spend more time in their company. She writes unpredictably: I didn’t see where each of these stories was going and enjoyed finding out. The cure for my reading slump!

A wrap-up of this week’s reading

I started of this week by finishing How fiction works by James Wood. It is a clearly and sometimes caustically written study of the main elements of fiction (narrative, detail, characterization, dialogue and so on) from a personal point-of-view i.e what James Wood thinks works and what he thinks doesn’t, and why. As Wood writes in his introduction, “I hope, then, that this book might be one which asks theoretical questions but answers them practically- or to say it differently, asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers.” I particularly liked his close discussion of particular passages to prove his point, and as is only to be expected from a book of this type, I’ve come away with a few more TBR titles. (Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert, which I own, and What Maisie Knew by Henry James and A House for Mr. Biswas by V.s Naipaul, which I don’t.)

I next read Behind the scenes at the museum by Kate Atkinson. I so enjoyed her most recent Jackson Brodie books that I decided to try something from her back catalogue, with wonderful results. I couldn’t stop laughing at this shocking and sprawling family saga narrated by the unsentimental and rather omniscient Ruby Lennox. Atkinson is fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary authors and I’ll be reading more of her work soon.

I’ve just finished the latest Montalbano mystery translated into English, The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri. As usual, there was a nasty and complicated crime for Salvo to sort out, sustained by good food and his scathing sense of humour. Curling up on the lounge with this and my doona was a perfect antidote to an autumnal day in Sydney. A day very much crowned by viewing a screening of To Kill A Mockingbird on ABC2 tonight, which of course has made me want to re-read the book.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to be promised two free books- a Jane Austen sequel, Emma and Knightly (courtesy of Harriet Devine and Sourcebooks) and a Shakespeare play, The taming of the shrew (courtesy of Blog a Penguin classic).

And I still have Sunday to look forward to! I’m planning to read a few more Paris Review interviews, do some second-hand book shopping and make a start on And only to deceive by Tasha Alexander, which I first read about at A work in progress.