In this collection of short stories writer CG Menon explores love in all its guises: unrequited love, true love, self-love as well as self-loathing and loss, through different cultures and across cultures, in a way that speaks to every reader. From the opening story, ‘The Ampang Line,’ to the final, ‘Rock Pools’, we feel the melancholy of misunderstandings, of lifetimes of loss. In ‘The Ampang Line,’ unappreciated and unloved wife Shalini is revisiting her childhood home that was sold by her step-mother to a hotel chain and is now a modern hotel. Her husband, Dilip, only sees the place as it is; he has no emotional attachment to it, whereas Shalini is englufed by her childhood memories:
The house is unrecognisable…I remember a thicket of hibiscus shoots and dizzying deep-water ponds where the mineshafts used to flood. That’s all gone now, replaced with a sterile birdbath in a lake of lawn and a lap pool scrubbed chemical blue. Dilip grunts with satisfaction…It’s the sort of arrangement he likes; everything laid out with the crusts cut off
communicating the gulf between Shalini and her husband without explicitly naming those differences. Author CG Menon subtly and gently layers emotion upon plot upon more emotion, until we too experience the pain of her protagonists. All the characters in this collection have veins of vulnerability running through them, from Sara in ‘Subjunctive Moods’ to Anjali in ‘Watermelon Seeds’ (my second favourite after ‘Rock Pools’). The stories are wistful and powerful at the same time: the over-confident Katya in ‘Subjunctive Moods’, whose future is foreshadowed by the statement but she isn’t really Russian. She was born somewhere else – she’s Balkan, or Serbian, or maybe even Croatian. The final line in this story feels like some sort of retribution for main character Sara, yet at the same time creates a disquieting sensation of unease for Katya’s welfare. The story changes direction entirely with that last line. Menon does this extremely well through all the stories in this collection, so many of the endings being a moment of self-awareness for the protagonist, or the author herself letting us in to their worlds where we catch a glimpse of that moment of personal enlightenment. It is a rare gift indeed that an author is able to do this without creating a cliché.
Much of Menon’s writing is poetic, with worlds and emotions understated and beautifully constructed. She uses simple yet detailed descriptions of settings or surroundings, which makes each story visually rich. You don’t have to have visited Malaysia to know that a pontianak is not a good thing, but this vampiric spirit sits well in the story ‘Aunty’, the tale of the unfortunate Leila who ended up in a plastic ice-cream box once cremated. A funny enough scenario, until we learn how and why Leila died. Folklore, mythology and traditions are, like fine silk, woven through all of the stories in this collection and that gives them a tremendous strength and shine.
In ‘Clay For Bones’, Menon tells us
Back in Cochin I’d understood the ghosts; I’d smelled uppuma at midnight when long-dead aunts took to frying on a cold stove, and nodded to shadowy uncles grateful to skulk in the dim, mosquito-netted corners of the vast bedrooms. But here in Wales the ghosts are different
where the importance of relationships between women is given much merit, despite, as in the case of Sweta, one of them is dead. This is a theme that flows through many of the stories.
In ‘For You Are Julia’ we wonder why Julia refused Tom’s proposal of marriage 30 years before and married the organised, efficient Edward instead. We are given a glimpse of her marriage that is and the marriage that never was and it is all very relatable. This particular story has similarities with but is different from the famous film about love lost, Brief Encounter, and it makes your heart yearn for both Julia and Tom. Again, the ending of this particular story is very sad and tells of a moment, an opportunity, missed a second time.
All of these stories are cleverly crafted, and each of them reaches out in some way to the human experience whether as a child or adult, of love, of desire: of the human condition. It feels as though Menon shares much of herself through these stories, as she displays an empathy with many of her characters, which she then presents to us through the rich tapestry of her prose. Her observation of the social worker’s attitude to Tracey’s choice of name for her new son in ‘Foxgloves’ is spot on: “He’s called Merlin?” A pause, a huff of breath through the nostrils, and that’s just Tracey’s whole life right there, isn’t it, wrapped up in a single smirk that lasts a heartbeat. “That’s clever, dear.”
Menon draws together different experiences from across the world to create a neat package of different tales that can speak to all of us in different ways and with different voices. Along side the every day, her references to and use of folklore and mythical beings are used in such as a way as to make them appear completely mainstream and believable, and which in turns makes these sixteen superb stories so unique.
Jacci Gooding is busy on the live lit circuit in Leamington Spa and Warwick. Author and ex-editorial assistant, she can also be found in the summer months reading her short stories at The Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival and on the fringe at the Evesham Festival of Words. A Writers’ New competition winner and participant in Birmingham Rep’s Play in a Day. Self-published in both digital and paper format, her short stories can be found online as well as on her blog. When not writing fiction, she writes short articles for Mayhem! magazine.
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