|Aerogrammes and other stories|
The characters in Tania James’ debut short story collection (she’s written a novel, Atlas of Unknowns) seem varied enough at first: an Indian classical dance teacher in Illinois, a retired grocer, an old man in Kentucky who walks seven miles to buy his granddaughter a Ken doll, a boy obsessed with handwriting, a chimpanzee. But these all turn out to be people with fractured lives, trying – and mostly failing – to heal themselves. The dance teacher has money troubles and status issues. The ex-grocer must decide between his sister’s greasy, cramped house and an old-age home. The old man sees his dead wife in his nine-year-old granddaughter. The handwriting analyst struggles to recover from his father’s death.
James writes with affection for her characters, and provides an almost overly detailed sense of their milieu. But there’s a tedium to these stories that’s hard to get away from. The ever-present sense of dislocation makes for predictable reading: almost all James’ stories are about Malayalis in the USA, and none of them seem to feel at home. And the oddball quotient can sometimes feel attention-seeking. The orphan chimp is adopted by an Ohio woman, along with her husband’s illegitimate child from his Sierra Leonean housekeeper. A young widow in another story has an arranged marriage with a wealthy ghost.
At its best, James’ prose can be closely observed and revealing. But her attempts at lyrical poignancy are often overwritten. A child, watching her father weep, “linger[s] in the still pool of his sorrow,” while a girl meeting the chimpanzee she grew up with “had collected those memories like precious stones”. The possibility of an emotional response is buried under the weight of this sentimental excess.