Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Finished on: 5 December 2016
Where did I get this book: A kindle purchase
When I read a Haruki Marakami anthology of short stories a while ago, I likened the experience to eating porridge: the desire to enjoy something worthy that is ultimately unsatisfying.
Initially I thought Interpreter of Maladies was a novel. I was so gripped by the first few pages (the kindle sample function strikes again) that I had to download the whole thing. This first story, A Temporary Matter, is a stunningly moving, beautifully written study of a troubled marriage given respite through a series of power cuts that force the couple, Shoba and Shukumar, to communicate with each other in the absence of other distractions.
The short stories I usually enjoy tend to be based around an interesting, often gruesome or supernatural, concept. It is the idea behind the story that grips me, as I often find the brevity of the form to be a barrier to emotional engagement. In this story, Lahiri completely turns my previous experience on its head. By the end of A Temporary Matter I was sobbing.
It is difficult to put your finger on how a writer successfully enables a real, heartfelt connection between their characters and the reader. Lahiri certainly has a vivid way with description; you immediately see the people in her stories in three dimensions.
His hair was cut in a thick fringe over his eyes, which had dark circles under them. They were the first thing Miranda noticed. They made him look haggard, as if he smoked a great deal and slept very little, in spite of the fact that he was only seven years old.
But I think the key here is that she is a master of ‘just enough’. Her writing, although vivid, is beautifully simple. The reader is constantly filling in the emotional blanks. Lahiri strikes the perfect balance between depicting a ‘real’ character, and allowing space enough for us to project our own experiences. And I don’t use the word perfect lightly there. These are some of the best short stories I have ever read.
They simply ate in a darkened room, in the glow of a beeswax candle. They had survived a difficult time.
While A Temporary Matter is the stand-out offering, all of the stories in this collection are excellent. There isn’t a duff one among them. All killer, no filler.
Several of them deal with immigrants living in a new place, far from their home, and explore the difficulties, the excitement, the awkwardness, the potential and the confusion of this situation. Lahiri’s writing places the reader well and truly in the shoes, particularly in an emotional sense, of people in this situation. And in one of those literary synchronicities that occur surprisingly frequently, the Louise Casey report into social integration came out while I was reading this book. I know I am massively biased, but I came away thinking if only we all read books like this, wouldn’t that go a long way towards supporting a more harmonious coexistence?
Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to tie people to a chair and force them to read books. That should have been one of Casey’s recommendations. But it is true that experiencing someone’s story, and feeling ourselves to be part of it, must be one of the most powerful ways to overcome mistrust and misunderstandings. You can’t see someone as the ‘other’ when you’re seeing what they’re seeing, and feeling what they’re feeling.
But even if we can’t quite manage peace on earth and goodwill to all men, this book is still a brilliant read.
Incidentally, I have also recently discovered a love for porridge, and now have it for breakfast every morning. Maybe this book is the start of an equivalent conversion for me with the short story.