Friday, May 25, 2012

"Aerogrammes," by Tania James

I read and very much liked Tania James’ debut novel, “Atlas of Unknowns,” when it came out in 2009; it was very well reviewed and received. It is the story of two sisters from India, one of whom moved to the U.S. to study, and the other who came to find the first when she disappeared. The shifting yet enduring relationship between them, and the emotions involved, were compellingly portrayed, as were the obvious and subtle differences between life in India and life in the U.S. So when I saw that James had a new book out, a short story collection titled “Aerogrammes,” I knew I had to read it. Not only had I liked her earlier book, but also the word “aerogrammes” is evocative for me. These are the thin blue sheets of paper, ingeniously folded into one piece that serves as letter and an envelope as well , that are so familiar from my childhood in India. We almost always used them when writing back and forth to relatives and friends in Canada and the United States, and when we returned to America, I still got letters from friends in India in the same well-known form. My mother still gets them from her old friends in India. To this day, I have some aerogramme letters saved somewhere deep in a box or two in a closet or two, souvenirs of that time in my life. This is obviously not an adequate reason to read the book, but it drew me in. So how are the stories? Let’s put it this way: when I finished, I felt I had been on a rather bumpy journey through various completely different terrains. The settings of the stories are widely scattered, but more than that, the styles, the tones, the emotional temperatures, the characters are so very diverse that I didn’t feel much unity in the collection. It is an interesting question to consider: should there be a feeling of cohesiveness in a short story collection? Do we admire the extremely diverse array of experiences provided by an author, such as in this case, or do we feel a bit jostled and unsettled? I found some of the stories fascinating and sure-footed; others seemed too wispy, or too self-consciously quirky. I liked the stories “Aerogrammes” (and not just because of the title!), “Light and Luminous,” and “Escape Key” (although the latter was especially painful to read). I only mildly liked “Lion and Panther in London,” “What To Do with Henry,” or “Girl Marries Ghost,” probably at least partially because I didn’t particularly like reading about – respectively – wrestlers, a family that raised a chimpanzee, and a woman who married a ghost. I will say, though, that all of the stories are beautifully written, and I will definitely continue reading whatever Tania James publishes.

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