Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Interpreter of Maladies

When I wrote about books to take home with me, it was Aarti (thank you!) who commented that a short story collection would make the perfect reading for a busy long weekend; the comment immediately reminded me of another short story collection that I have been desperate to read recently since the one lined up no longer seemed appropriate: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I packed it and it was the perfect read, especially on the returning flight, when short stories were the perfect length for the wait in departures, a few read on the flight with the last pages of one finished whilst we were delayed taxiing on the runway and another on the train home from the airport. The stories themselves are a good length as is the volume and I didn't bore of them or have my attention diverted as is the case with some short story collections; instead I was engaged and entranced by the writing.

After reading "Hell-Heaven" from Lahiri's new volume of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, I knew that I loved her style; her writing is simple yet nuanced and her stories are rich and powerful. Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000 and I wish I had read it earlier. Very accessible, these stories are a delight to read and riveting in the Bengali Indian experiences (native Bengalis, Bengali immigrants to America and second generation Bengalis) that the stories evoke. Some of the stories are about assimilation into American culture whereas the title story is about a Bengali man encountering an American woman in his own county and others are about young married couples. As with all short story collections some stories are stronger than others but all of Lahiri's resonated; with some I have been left with a profound feeling of sadness and sympathy for the characters depicted. There is a sense of being disconnected from the characters at times but I think this was intentional, especially in those stories where the protagonist is struggling to fit in and feel distant themselves from their Indian home and from the culture surrounding them; moreover, the characters often feel distant from one another, most often in their marriages.

My favourite stories (from nine)

"A Temporary Matter" is by far the strongest story in the collection, the first and my favourite. The temporary matter refers to an electrical outage that will affect the house of married couple, Shoba and Shukumar, but that temporary matter becomes to symbolise more. Since a tragedy befell them, Shoba and Shukamar have been unable to communicate more than superficially but the blackout allows them to speak to one another again and freely they begin to confess things unknown to the other. This story is profound in its exploration of what couples leave unsaid and what they say to hurt one another. Its play on silence and communication is accomplished.

"This Blessed House" is a story I read in a short story collection recently about lovers' quarrels and I did prefer the stories about the younger married couples than I did some of the others. Twinkle and Sanjeev had their marriage arranged and barely know one another; the story charts their growth as a couple and how they begin to understand one another and the compromises they make.

"Mrs Sen's" is one of the stories I found the saddest as Mrs Sen's loneliness is palpable. Mrs Sen is a tragic character seen through the eyes of eleven-year-old Eliot, who stays with Mrs Sen after school whilst his mother works. Tradition is a huge part of Mrs Sen's reason for being and her traditions aren't always feasible in her new surroundings, especially when it involves learning new skills such as driving. Like most of Lahiri's stories, food is a central component to the plot: the ingredients and preparation, the eating and the senses it evokes.




21 comments:

Aarti said...

I'm so glad you read and enjoyed this book! I read it a long time ago and don't remember much, but seeing your comments on the couple with the blackout brought that story back to me- I really enjoyed it!

One issue I have with Lahiri is just how OBSESSED she is with being Bengali, as though it's so different than being any other Indian. I feel like she beats you over the head with the Bengali stuff.

Nymeth said...

"A Temporary Matter" was definitely my favourite as well, but I really like them all. I love her writing, and I love how she can evoke so much emotion with so few words.

leaningtowardthesun said...

I enjoyed this one too. Her stories are so rich and warm. I liked them all but I seem to remember Mrs Sen's the most, her lonliness was so tangible. Have you read The Namesake? I liked that one as well.

Laura said...

Fantastic, wasn't it? I read this book two years ago and was prompted to re-read my review. I also mentioned a few stand-out stories, including A Temporary Matter and Mrs. Sen's !

mel u said...

this sounds like a very good collection-for some reason I do not read many short stories but when I do I always tell myself I need to read more-

JoAnn said...

Thanks for reminding me of a few of my favorite stories - so glad you enjoyed them, too. Lahiri is an amazing writer!

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't read any of Lahiri's books yet, but I have most of them on the shelves. I really need to get round to reading them at some point, but it sounds as though this one might not be a good one for me to start with (short stories with detached characters)

savidgereads said...

I havent read this collection, though I do have Lahiri's novel on my TBR and am now very very excited about it. I do think short story collections are something I need to delve further into in 2010.

verity said...

It's funny - Nicola Beaumann was extolling the short story on Monday, and one of the other people in the audience said how good they were for travelling...

Paperback Reader said...

Aarti, "A Temporary Matter" was such an exquisite story and I'm sure one that will remain with me.

I noticed the obsession with Bengali too but I didn't want to be insulting by just referring to Indian-American experience when she has been so specific about her heritage but, yes, the experiences would be one and the same no matter the region.

Nymeth, her word usage is taut with no superfluous descriptions and yet a range of emotion evoked; Lahiri is a very skilled writer and the stories are extremely well crafted.

Danielle, this is the first Lahiri I have read in full but I will be adding a copy of The Namesake to my TBR list in due course. "Mrs Sen's" was quite haunting.

Laura, thanks for sharing your review and it seems that we shared the same impressions!

mel, this is definitely a short story collection that I would recommend without reservation yo you.

JoAnn, you're welcome. I love her writing!

Jackie, I agree unless you approach the book knowing that (which you do now). Her writing is beautiful but I have a feeling that you would be left feeling dissatisfied. Apparently three of the stories from Unaccustomed Earth follow the same characters so that may be a better place to start or her novel.

Simon, I'm looking forward to your thoughts on The Namesake!
I intend to read more short stories too as I do love them from a writing point of view and so many are perfected little pieces of art.

Verity, how coincidental! I thoroughly concur now and it had never occurred to me before; for a long-haul flight I would stick to a novel that I could fully immerse myself in but the virtues of short stories for shorter journeys is now indisputable to me.

Zee said...

I loved Interpreter of Maladies too and like you "A Temporary Matter" was my favourite. It was so poignant and sad. It has stayed with me and I read the book almost two years ago.

Kals said...

I was waiting for your review of this book =) Sounds like vintage Lahiri. I've read The Namesake which deals with similar themes you've mentioned. I'd recommend The Namesake to you too =)

Thanks for the review. I think I'll enjoy the book =)

Nadia said...

This is one of my favorite books! I fell in love with Lahiri's work after reading these brilliant short stories. A Temporary Matter is my favorite one! Her writing is just excellent and I feel like she brings these characters to life along with their surroundings in such a clear and defined way that you can't help but become engaged with her stories. Excellent post!

Geraldine said...

Claire, just to say many thanks for my surprise prize "The Bloody Chamber" which arrived today.

I'm 99.9% sure I've never read anything by Angela Carter before so this should be a great introduction.

The book has gone to 3rd place in the sitting room to be read pile, i.e. underneath the two library reservations I collected yesterday, "Her Fearful Symmetry" and "I am a Cat".
Thanks again
Geraldine

Paperback Reader said...

Zee, I think that "A Temporary Matter" has the power and longevity to stay with me too.

Kals, I'm glad that I didn't disappoint! I'm looking forward to obtaining a copy of The Namesake and find it odd that I haven't so already considering that I prefer novels to short stories.

Nadia, thank you. Lahiri's writing is so beautiful and yet also so simple and effective; I admired the stories so much as well as finding them engaging and memorable.

Geraldine, I am glad that it arrived safely and I hope you enjoy it. I also hope that you enjoy I Am a Cat and Her Fearful Symmetry. I love being able to introduce new writers and books to fellow readers and Angela Carter is my favourite writer.

Karen said...

A Temporary Matter was definitely my favourite story in this collection as well - it sounds like many people have felt this way. Overall I loved Unaccustomed Earth far more than this collection.

Paperback Reader said...

Karen, I can't wait to read Unaccustomed Earth if you loved it far more than this one! I have a copy and will be reading it in the New Year.

Eva said...

Yay for "A Temporary Matter"! :) This was my first Lahiri book-I read it back when I was in high school, and I've been a fan of her ever since. Unaccustomed Earth disappointed me a bit, though-I hope her next release is a novel.

Paperback Reader said...

Eva, it is such an amazingly good short story and the one that stands out in everyone's memories. I must read The Namesake and here is to more Lahiri fiction.

Rebecca Reid said...

I read this when I first started blogging and I really liked it. I agree, it stays with me. It's nice to read your story reactions and recall my own!

I have Unaccustomed Earth on a shelf, I should take it out soon!

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, you are welcome; it is not often when there is a volume of short stories where overall impressions of all of the stories remain so I thought I'd provide a mini recap of some.

I hope you enjoy Unaccustomed Earth! I plan on reading it myself in the New Year.