Tania James's Aerogrammes and Other Stories
stephenhongsohn's review of James's debut novel Atlas of Unknowns introduced me to the author, and though I still haven't gotten around to reading that novel, I picked up this short story collection when I checked it in from the book drop at my library. My attention span is sort of more suited to short story collections these days anyways, and I am glad I got a chance to read this one. I kept saying as I read the book, "I'm reading a book with a picture of a lion and panther hugging on the cover." They could also be fighting; the picture is ambiguous.
What I loved about these stories is that they all feature people who are broken--both physically and spiritually. Their difficulty functioning in the world as it is becomes a critique of the way the world is. The settings of the story range from early twentieth century London to Sierra Leone to contemporary America and even an alternate reality world (speculative fiction) where ghosts come back from the dead and marry living people in a new kind of arranged marriage for financial stability. The characters and situations are all drastically different, but James's language is consistently beautiful and startling in its insight.
The opening story, "Lion and Panther in London," involves brothers Gama and Imam, wrestlers from Punjab, who are in London to take on all comers for the world championship. They initially have difficulty finding any challengers, though, because the world of wrestling is rigged, and the outcomes of matches are determined in advance with much money exchanging hands between tour managers and wrestlers. The story is as much about that wrestling world as it is about the relationship between the two brothers, and there is also commentary about the colonial subject status of these men in the metropole.
One of my favorite stories is "The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor," about a young man who still lives with his mother and is obsessed with graphology--reading handwriting as a way of viewing people's personality. The narrative is a perfect example of a limited, first-person point of view perspective, with the man Vijay unable to understand his mother's romance with a new man (the father long out of the picture).
Some of the characters in the stories find themselves participating in other people's delusions or fictions, coming to understand that the delicate if troubled worlds these others have built for themselves is the only way they can survive as dementia sets in or as they face an unremittingly frustrating world. In the title story, "Aerogrammes," for example, Mr. Panicker finds himself in a nursing home--temporarily, he insists--when his son is too busy with his pursuit of a career as a scriptwriter to take care of him. He finds a friend in a woman named May who sends money periodically to India to feed a starving, homeless boy. Mr. Panicker and May bond over this connection to India and the aerogrammes that arrive for May with stories about how difficult the boy's life is. At a certain point, what is real and what is wish fulfillment for the two characters becomes blurry, but the distinction no longer matters in the way James tells the story.
The other stories are excellent, too, and I highly recommend this collection for everyone who loves beautifully crafted short stories as well as glimpses into the difficult, broken lives of people who find themselves in various ways far from home, distanced from family members, or otherwise unseen and unappreciated in their worlds.