Seeking Fortune Elsewhere: Stories by Sindya Bhanoo

“The memory of the past, the futility of the future, it leaves her breathless.”

Seeking Fortune Elsewhere presents its readers with a well-crafted collection of short stories mapping the paths of those who leave and those who are left behind. Set in America and southern India these narratives explore the realities of leaving one’s homeland behind, generational and cultural rifts, loneliness and connectedness, family and belonging. The first story, “Malliga Homes,”, which was selected by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for an O. Henry Prize, strikes the perfect balance between bittersweet and unsentimental. The narrator is a widow living in a retirement community in Tamil Nadu. She tells us that like most of the residents of Malliga Homes, she is there because she has lost her child to ‘Foreign’. Kamala, her daughter, is the one who pushed her into ‘joining’ this community. She lives in America with her husband and child and has not visited the narrator in years, and in fact, keeps postponing and delaying her next visit. The author captures the microcosm that is this community, where parent(s) seem to outdo each other when it comes to their children’s achievements and how close they are to them. The unaffected style really gives the narrative a rich sense of realism and results in a subtle yet resonant short story. Throughout this collection the author mines similar themes: characters struggle to reconcile themselves to their past actions or are forced to reassess the past; they may long and yearn for the ‘what-ifs’ of the roads not taken; they flit between hope and regret; they desire a place and a people they can belong to. The more effective stories are the ones that focus on a particular period phase of a character’s life whereas the ones that did not quite succeed in reeling me in were the ones that attempted to cover too much of a character’s life. In these instances, the author isn’t quite able to achieve the rich in detail storytelling that she showcases in her more concise stories, where we glimpse a day or a week in a character’s life (rather than their whole life).
Nevertheless Seeking Fortune Elsewhere is a promising debut and I really loved the author’s understated yet incisive writing style.

some quotes:

“We were in that stage of life and motherhood that is filled with fatigue, unimaginable to the young, forgotten by the old, unknown altogether to those without children.”
“The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.”

“The time between childhood and old age passes quickly, leaving you feeling like your entire life is a double feature with no intermission.”

“What our children do, how much money they make, whether our grandchildren are bright or mediocre—all of this matters. It is a tragedy to have a brilliant child and a dunce of a grandchild.”

“[F]or all the space and privacy that America offers, it is a country that longs for life. You go for a drive and the road is endless.”

“He remembered the loneliness, the immense sorrow that came from going months without uttering a word of Tamil. There was no way for him to express certain thoughts, certain feelings, in the English language.”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin

“The expectations and ambitions, possibilities and hopes concerning my daughter – they still remain and torment me no matter how hard I work to get rid of them. To be rid of them, how skeletal and empty do I have to be?


Despite its short length Concerning my Daughter is by no means a breeze to read. It is a candid and stark study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship. In Concerning my Daughter Kim Hye-Jin examines generational differences, cultural conservatism, and the realities of being an lgbtq+ person living in a heteronormative and traditionalist society.

The story is told from the perspective of a middle-aged woman, a widowed careworker and mother to Green, who is now in her thirties. When Green asks her to rent out a room to her, she reluctantly obliges and is horrified to discover that Green will be joined by her long-term girlfriend, Lane. The mother wants her daughter to be happy, but her vision of contentment does not align with Green’s. The narrator longs for Green to lead a ‘normal’, expected, life: husband, children, a house. But here she is in her thirties and living with her. Worst, she is ‘unapologetically’ and ‘unabashedly’ gay, and has no intention of hiding her relationship from the prying eyes of others. In fact, Green is fighting for lgbtq+ rights, protesting the discrimination and unfair dismissal faced by members of her community at the university where she was employed at.

Throughout the course of the narrative, the mother fails to understand her daughter, and to a certain extent vice-versa. The author never condemns the mother for her lack of knowledge or her unwillingness to understand her daughter’s sexuality. Without excusing her homophobia, she identifies instead the harmful rhetorics promoted by her society. Additionally, we are shown repeatedly that it is this desire to protect her daughter from discrimination and injustices that leads her to reject Green’s ‘unorthodox’ lifestyle. Being in her head was by no means pleasant but her perspective rang sadly true to life.

The narrative swings between the mother’s uneasy relationship with Green and her girlfriend, to her taxing workplace. There she witnesses how uncaring and downright neglectful the staff is towards one of her elderly dementia patients. The patient has no family to speak of and therefore no one but our narrator looks out for her. The mother fights against the idea that this patient should be treated this way because she did not conform to society (the patient was a diplomat of some renown who travelled the world). I found the parallelism between this patient and Green banal …
I also disliked the gratuitous descriptions of the patients’ bodily functions and wounds. The author could have made us understand her neglectful living conditions without lingering on scenes detailing these things.
Her experiences with this patient lead to some depressingly bleak questions about mortality and ageing that at times came across as a wee bit too predictable.

I think I would have found this to be a more compelling story if the narrative had focused exclusively on the mother-daughter relationship but neither of these characters struck me as particularly fleshed out. It would have been nice also if the perspective could have alternated between the mother and Green’s girlfriend, just so we could see Green both in the role of daughter and partner.
Still, I appreciated the issues raised in this narrative. In some ways, it hit a bit too close to home as I am a lesbian from a fairly conservative country that has yet to legalize gay marriage and cares little about the wellbeing of its lgbtq+ citizens and I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and needs full-time care…so yes, maybe readers who are more removed from the events described in the narrative, or are not as ‘thin-skinned’ as I am, will find this to be a more poignant read than I did.

my rating: ★ ★ ★

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

The Old Woman with the Knife follows Hornclaw a 65-year-old assassin in South Korea who is noticing that she is no longer as fit as she used to be. She makes a few slips up on the job and wonders when her company is going to force her into retirement. Due to the nature of her job Hornclaw leads a solitary lifestyle, her only companion is an old dog whose presence she endures more than she enjoys. She is shown to be fairly apathetic and efficient even if the people around her are quick to dismiss her based on her gender and age. Not only does Hornclaw have to contend with the possibility of her motor and cognitive skills deteriorating but a young male colleague of hers seems eager to embarrass her, talking down to her and making jabs at her techniques. Although mildly annoyed by this Hornclaw doesn’t seem particularly bothered by him however when it seems that his dislike of her may be deeper than what their superficial colleague-relationship entails, Hornclaw can no longer be passive. When he begins to interfere with her jobs and her private life Hornclaw has no choice but to confront him.
I was hoping for the story to be more about Hornclaw’s profession rather than the cat/mouse game between her and her colleague. That man is fairly one-dimensional and the way he is portrayed often veers into the cartoonish so I never took him as a serious threat. While we do get glimpses into Hornclaw’s past, in particular the circumstances that led to her entering this line of work and her relationship with her mentor, the narrative relies too much on the ‘telling’ of things. I would have preferred to read more scenes actually showing Hornclaw working, either on her first jobs or her most memorable killings. Hornclaw’s characterisation also seemed a tad uneven. It seemed to me that the author couldn’t quite bring themselves to portray Hornclaw as a ruthless and self-serving killer so we end up with a character who demonstrates very inconsistent characteristics that don’t quite add up. Also, we are told that at one point or another she has cared for two individuals but I didn’t quite believe that as the first instance is the cliched mentee has feelings for mentor shebang and the other was just kind of weird. Lastly, while for much of the narrative we are told about how remorseless and cold-hearted Hornclaw is she actually comes across as frustratingly unassertive and not incredibly good at her job. It would have been more refreshing to see a character of her age and gender be outspoken or even aggressive and arrogant. Hornclaw ascribes her ‘softening’ to her ageing but that seemed a bit of a cop-out. I’m sure that frailty or the possibility of frailty could make one feel more vulnerable or more perceptive and sympathetic of the vulnerabilities of others but it does end up making Hornclaw into a rather corny character. Still, I can’t think of another book that is centred on a female assassin in her mid-60s so if you are interested in this kind of premise you should definitely check this one out for yourself.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Written in Lahiri’s characteristically understated prose Unaccustomed Earth is a bittersweet and minutely observed collection of short stories. Set in America, India, and even Thailand, these stories focus on relationships between siblings, parents and their children, grandparents and their grandchildren, married couples, and friends. They are also characterized by a strong sense of nostalgia, partly due to their ‘historical’ settings, partly due to the nature of the relationships, Lahiri is writing of. Characters misunderstand each other, they fall out of love, they don’t reciprocate each other’s feelings (be romantic or otherwise), or fail themselves and their loved ones. Lahiri’s characters are often unable or unwilling to make amends, recover, and or forgive the people closest to them. In these stories, Lahiri presents us with vividly rendered scenarios that give us crystal-clear glimpses into the lives of the people she is writing of. As with Lahiri’s other works, in Unaccustomed Earth quotidian spaces and conversations take the foreground, cementing the everyday realities of these characters.

Lahiri’s prose is as elegant and subtle as ever. Without wasting a single word Lahiri conveys the often incongruous feelings and thoughts that people experience, as well as presenting us with some piercing insights into love, loss, family, and belonging. Definitely, a must-read for fans of the short-story medium.

my rating: ★★★¾

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Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

“It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.”

Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a gentle and life-affirming novel (novella?). The book’s central figures are discriminated against because of their pasts: Sentaro is a middle aged man who works at a dorayaki shop has a criminal record; Tokue, an elderly woman, had leprosy as a teen and was subsequently forced into exile in a leprosarium. Sentaro is unenthusiastic about his job and future, seeming resigned to a life of despondency. This changes when Tokue begins working alongside him. Although Sentaro is initially reluctant to let Tokue work with him he changes his mind once he tastes her delicious bean paste. Tokue’s dedication to this culinary process earns his respect and loyalty but the shop sees an increase in customers. However, gossip about Tokue’s disfigured hands threatens Sentaro’s newfound happiness.
As the cover and title suggest this was a very sweet read. While the tone of the story was by no means schmaltzy, there were times in which the narrative struck me as a bit too fluffy (i.e. not particularly deep). Sentaro is a fairly simple character and to be honest I didn’t find him nearly as half compelling as Tokue. The narrative does shed light on how harmful stigmas can be as well as providing information relating to the history of leprosy in Japan.
I do wish that Tokue had remained the focus of the narrative as Sentaro and the schoolgirl (who was an entirely forgettable character) were very dull by comparison.
Still, even if this isn’t a particularly complex or thought-provoking story I do think that it will appeal to fans of The Housekeeper and the Professor as it has a similarly tranquil atmosphere.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

 

“What we had that day was our story. We didn’t have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of al of this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew. But I’m sure I felt the story of that hall and how we reached it would never vanish.”

Mayflies is novel about the friendship between two Glaswegian men. The first half of the novel is set in the summer of 1986 when our narrator, James, alongside four of his friends go to Manchester to watch some of their favourite bands. Andrew O’Hagan really brings this era to life, through their slang and the references they use. During the course of this freewheeling weekend they have the time of their lives, going to pubs and clubs, getting up to shenanigans, hanging out withs strangers, all the while animatedly discussing music and politics (Thatcher, the miners’ strike). James, who is the more bookish and reserved of the lot, is particularly close to Tully, who is the undeniable glue that binds their group together and a wonderful friend. While this first half of the novel is all about what if feels to be young, reckless, free, and full of life, O’Hagan’s characters, regardless of their age, are capable serious reflections, such as wondering what sort future awaits them and their country.
This section is so steeped in 1980s culture that I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with their banter (I am not from the UK and I’m a 90s child so I’m sure that readers who are more familiar with this era won’t have such a hard time).

“The past was not only a foreign country, it was a whole other geology.”

The second half brings us forward to 2017 when both James and Tully are in their early 50s. Here the narrative feels far more restrained, reflecting James’ age. He has different preoccupations now, a career, a partner. Yet, he is recognisably still James. Tully too is both changed and unchanged. In spite of the distance between them (James lives in London now) the two have remained close friends. This latter section moves at a far slower pace, which should have been jarring but it wasn’t. If anything it felt very natural. Here we have more measured meditations about life and death, questions about what we owe to the ones we love, and reconciliations with the past.
O’Hagan succeeds in uniting two very different moments/stages of a man’s life. An exhilarating snapshot of being young in the 80s is followed by a slower-paced and more thoughtful narrative centred around people who haven’t been young for quite some time. I have read very few—if any—novels that focus on male friendship. So often we see portrayals that show how intimate and deep female friendships are, which is wonderful but it’s refreshing to read a novel that is very much an ode to the friendship between two men. O’Hagan’s portrayal of the relationship between Tully and James was incredibly moving and nuanced.

“Loyalty came easily to Tully. Love was the politics that kept him going.”

Although I may have missed quite a few cultural references and I definitely didn’t get a lot of the Glaswegian/80s, thanks to the musical education I received from my parents I mostly managed to keep up with this novel’s music front. I really appreciated James’ literary references, which later in life make their way into his conversations with Tully. I also liked the way James would observe the character traits of those around—both as a young man and later in life—as well as his pondering about childhood, adulthood, generational differences, life in general. His thoughtful narration was truly compelling.
Mayflies is an affecting and realistic novel that presents its readers with a vibrant examination of friendship and identity, one that I would thoroughly recommend to others.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Akin by Emma Donoghue — book review

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“He and this boy were quite alien to each other, he decide. Yet, in an odd way, akin.”

Akin tells the touching story of Noah Selvaggio, a retired seventy-nine year old chemistry professor, and his eleven year old great-nephew, Michael Young. Noah is a widower who has few remaining connections in the world and his fairly quiet existence is thrown out of balance when he is more or less cajoled into becoming Michael’s temporary carer. Michael’s mother is in prison, his father, Noah’s nephew, died of an overdose, and his maternal grandmother has recently passed away. Noah is, quite understandably, reticent to the idea of looking after Michael…he is aware of the limitations that come with his age, and having never had any contact with Michael or his mother, he feels a mixture of guilt and unease at this sudden ‘reunion’.
Yet, given the circumstances, not only does he find himself accepting to briefly take on this role but he is also forced to take Michael with him in a much overdue trip to Nice, Noah’s place of birth.

“And Mr. Selvaggio is your great-uncle, which is another kind of uncle.”
“What’s so great about him?” Micheal wanted to know.
Whether that was ignorance or wit, it did make Noah smile.”

The simple and unadorned narrative takes us alongside Noah and Michael’s in their stay in Nice. We follow them as they walk around Nice, eat a lot, visit museums and other historical sites. All the while Noah is also preoccupied with a mystery of sorts…having come across as some old photos Noah begins to fear that his mother might have been hiding something…his mind begins to formulate different kind of theories regarding his mother’s actions in WWII: was she a collaborator?

“Such convoluted grammar death required: what tense to describe the hypothetical emotions of a woman who didn’t exist anymore?”

Michael’s constant presence however demands Noah’s undivided attention. The child is rude and bratty, and treats Noah with suspicion and contempt. The two are at odds from the very start. Noah, who spend most of his days living in the past, attempts to make some sort of connection with Michael by acting as a tour guide of sorts. He also reiterates his and Michaels’s family history (Noah’s grandfather was a famous photographer) as a way of reinforcing their familial bond. Michael’s attention however seems wholly devoted to his phone. He swears a lot, demands junk food all the time, and is bored by Noah and his ‘lessons’.
There is a dissonance between the two: the things that have shaped Noah’s life seems to be of little relevance to Michael. At the same time Michael has experienced hardships that Noah finds difficulty to comprehend.

“In the pictures Michael looked older, Noah thought; harder. But really, eleven — that was barely formed.”

The two wander about Nice, often a despondent Michael’s following in Noah’s stead. The city seems to stir something within Noah so that he finds himself compelled to discover the truth about his mother.
Interrogating the past brings to light some deeply disturbing facts. Nice’s own history, the Excelsior Hotel (which happens to be the hotel Noah and Michael are staying in), the risks taken by members of the resistance, the torture they could be made to endure…the narrative portrays in sharp clarity one of the darkest periods of human history.

The dynamic between Noah and Michael eases some of the tension from this perusal of the past. The quarrels had a very natural flow to them; at time they seemed to escalate out of nothing, while in other instances they boiled down to nothing. They constantly seemed exasperated by one another, and I soon grew accustomed to the rhythm of their conversations.
I found myself deeply caring for Noah. His attempts to reach Michael could be both sweet and awkward, and Michael too, in spite of his horrible behaviour, slowly grew on me.

“Why don’t you start it now?”
“I’m good.”
Funny how that had come to mean no.

This genuine story offers us with plenty of thoughtful reflections regarding the differences and similarities between Noah and Michael’s generations. While Michael easily navigates the ‘modern’ world, Noah is accustomed to a different one.
The novel also broaches many subjects—topical and non—in a very frank and natural way; commentaries regarding America and France are embedded in a very smooth manner, so that it never feels overdone.

“How could you do your homework if you didn’t even have a home to work in?”

I was moved by Noah’s internal turmoils, by his introspections and examinations that move between past and present. His ‘kinship’ with Michael was rendered slowly and subtly, so that their relationship never blossoms into an unlikely affectionate bond but the story leaves us with possibility of a camaraderie of sorts between the two.
Filled with equal parts humour and heart, Akin is a wonderfully compelling novel, one that I would happily read again.

“He supposed it was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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