AALF uses “maximal ideological inclusiveness” to define Asian American literature. Thus, we review any writers working in the English language of Asian descent. We also review titles related to Asian American contexts without regard to authorial descent. We also consider titles in translation pending their relationship to America, broadly defined. Our point is precisely to cast the widest net possible.
With apologies as always for any typographical, grammatical, or factual errors. My intent in these reviews is to illuminate the wide-ranging and expansive terrain of Asian American and Asian Anglophone literatures. Please e-mail email@example.com with any concerns you may have.
In this post, reviews of N.H. Senzai’s Ticket to India (Simon & Schuster / Paula Wiseman, 2016); Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Redhook 2015); Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us (St. Martin’s Press, 2016); Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Golden Son (William Morrow, 2016); Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Language of Secrets (St. Martin’s Minotaur 2016); Rajan Khanna’s Rising Tide (Pyr, 2015); Padma Lakshmi’s Love, Loss, and What We Ate (HarperCollins, 2016); and Shobha Rao’s An Unrestored Woman (Flatiron Books, 2016).
A Review of N.H. Senzai’s Ticket to India (Simon & Schuster / Paula Wiseman, 2016).
N.H. Senzai’s Ticket to India is her third novelistic outing (after Saving Kabul Corner and Shooting Kabul) and explores a young girl’s adventures as she attempts to complete a quest bequeathed to her by her maternal grandmother. As per usual, we’ll let B&N provide us with the plot summary: “A trip to India turns into a grand adventure in this contemporary novel about the Great Partition, from the award-winning author of Saving Kabul Corner and Shooting Kabul. A map, two train tickets, and a mission. These are things twelve-year-old Maya and her big sister Zara have when they set off on their own from Delhi to their grandmother’s childhood home of Aminpur, a small town in Northern India. Their goal is to find a chest of family treasures that their grandmother’s family left behind when they fled from India to Pakistan during the Great Partition. But soon the sisters become separated, and Maya is alone. Determined to find her grandmother’s lost chest, she continues her trip, on the way enlisting help from an orphan by named Jai. Maya’s grand adventure through India is as thrilling as it is warm: a journey through her family’s history becomes a real coming-of-age quest.” What the plot summary doesn’t tell us though is the tragic beginning of the novel that requires Maya’s family to travel to Karachi: Maya’s grandfather has died. During this period, Maya discovers that Naniamma (her grandmother) has a secret. Naniamma is going to travel to India even though Maya’s mother and aunts have told Naniamma there is no time to do so. Naniamma had originally planned to travel to India with her now late husband in order to complete a quest involving lost family treasures. Maya and her older sister Zara eventually force Naniamma to allow them to accompany her to India unbeknownst to the rest of the family. During this period Naniamma tells them the story of her tragic upbringing, which involved her being one of three survivors of a train massacre during the Partition of India in 1947. Naniamma is able to make her way to Pakistan but obviously at great cost. Though her entire family is killed, she recalls that she and her family buried a chest of family heirlooms before they left their home. Using a memory map, Naniamma believes she can retrieve this chest, find a special set of rings that she was meant to share with her husband, and provide her granddaughters with a sense of lineage they never knew. Senzai tackles quite a lot of history and plot exposition in this novel, which makes this novel a tremendous addition to the middle grade canon, but also opens up thorny questions which may prove to be difficult to engage in an instructional setting. For instance, a large part of the plot involves Maya navigating the underworld of India, particularly its slum cultures, and even working with an orphan in order to complete the quest. Though Maya is able to make good on a promise to help this orphan find his sister and advocate for the lives of some of the other urban dispossessed, the story points to the limits of fiction to enact large scale social change especially in light of a domestic-centered quest plot. Thus, the resolution of the plot, focused so much on Naniamma’s quest, ends up being subverted by larger social issues that cannot be solved by Maya’s tenacious spirit. The lessons that the novel teaches us seem far grander and perhaps far more ambivalent than what is depicted on the page. To be sure, Maya and her sister encounter the complicated historical tapestry of India and Pakistan and even come to see that their own lineages cannot be divorced from colonial violence, but their journeys keep us wondering about sustainable interventions for the social inequalities that remain. Another solid outing by Senzai, who already has another publication in the works!
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A Review of Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (Redhook 2015).
I’ve been behind on my detective fiction reading for one reason or another, and I forgot how much I absolutely love this genre until I dived into Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra (part of the Baby Ganesha Agency Investigation Series, with the second title due out this year). As per usual, I let B&N take over plot summary duties here: “On the day he retires, Inspector Ashwin Chopra inherits two unexpected mysteries. The first is the case of a drowned boy, whose suspicious death no one seems to want solved. And the second is a baby elephant. As his search for clues takes him across the teeming city of Mumbai, from its grand high rises to its sprawling slums and deep into its murky underworld, Chopra begins to suspect that there may be a great deal more to both his last case and his new ward than he thought. And he soon learns that when the going gets tough, a determined elephant may be exactly what an honest man needs.” The drowned boy is none other than a young adult named Santosh, who hails from a lower middle class background. As Chopra begins investigating on his own (and against the wishes of his former superior), he discovers that Santosh might have been mixed up in some sort of issue involving business magnates, bribery, and of course, underworld thugs. Chopra’s unexpected inheritance is the titular the baby elephant, which comes from an uncle. Chopra must consider where to house the baby elephant until it can be claimed by a reputable animal sanctuary. In the meantime, he looks into why the elephant seems so depressed: it refuses to eat and barely musters up the energy to move around. The other major plot is related to Chopra’s wife Poppy, who still pines after a child, though she and Chopra had discovered that she would be unable to conceive due to some biological conditions. Fast forward to the present: Poppy finds out that her cousin’s teenage daughter is pregnant, and that the father has conveniently left town. Poppy devises a scheme in which she would take the child, feigning her own pregnancy, while simultaneously then saving her cousin’s family from almost certain social disgrace. Her plan of course entirely leaves Inspector Chopra in the dark. Khan’s got an especially winning formula in this first outing for Inspector Chopra: a scheming wife, a depressed baby elephant, and a mystery that only ever gets more complicated the deeper the investigation goes. There are a couple of moments toward the conclusion (sudden appearances out of nowhere, random coincidences that lead to breaks in the case) that do stretch the limits of credulity, but you can tell Khan is having some fun by making this narrative a little bit more comic and madcap than it would at first seem. Sign me up for the sequel!
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A Review of Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us (St. Martin’s Press, 2016).
This novel was on my highly anticipated reads for 2016 because the writer’s first publication, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, was one that broke into my trauma theory course in relation to Asian American Fiction (a hard thing to do at this point because I’ve pretty much been happy with the configuration and selection of books I’ve included). In Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us, our protagonist and narrator is a Sinhalese immigrant woman. The novel starts out in a sort of frame narrative—as a note, I’ve been seeing this technique A LOT this year in consecutive readings—in which we discover that the narrator is in jail for a seemingly lurid crime, the details of which are not at first revealed. We know it’s pretty bad though because the prologue tells us a short anecdote of an animal that is willing to kill her own child and then kill herself so that they could avoid the fates of being kept alive and repeatedly abused as laboratory specimens. Uh oh! In any case, once the frame narrative is set, the novel moves back into the past; the narrator provides the details of her upbringing in Sri Lanka, how it comes to an inauspicious close, as her father dies in a suspicious drowning. There is also a murky subplot involving one of the servants, a boy just a handful of years older than the narrator, and who may have ended up sexually assaulting her over the course of many years. It is unclear to me (and perhaps someone else can chime on this detail) whether or not Samson may have somehow been involved in the father’s death. The narrator is brought up in a fragile family: her father, who was a part of the landed gentry, ended up marrying a woman who was beneath him; it was a love marriage and that kind of controversy colors everything else. Once the father dies, the mother and child have few options. The mother’s sister already resides in America, and she convinces the narrator and her mother to travel to the United States for a fresh start. Once in the United States, we get a more traditional immigrant narrative, an aspect that Munaweera covered to some degree in the first half of Island of a Thousand Mirrors (and that novel is referenced in this one at one point!). The narrator is growing up and wants to be anything other than Sri Lankan; this section is white melancholia at its best. Once the novel moves into the latter half, the questions surrounding the narrator’s upbringing begin to complicate her life, especially as she engages a lengthy romantic relationship with a talented painter (who also happens to be white). Their courtship period is quite idyllic, and they eventually get married, but once the narrator becomes pregnant, the rocky road to the novel’s conclusion begins. At first, the painter isn’t so keen on the idea of being a father, but later relents. Then, the narrator begins to notice that she’s not so into being a mother and that she can be a little bit absentminded when it comes to their daughter Bodhi. This development creates more strain in the marital union, and the narrator’s husband leaves and takes Bodhi with him. The final portion seems to suggest the possibility of a reconciliation, but the trauma of the narrator’s childhood emerges in full force, hurtling us toward the novel’s catastrophic denoument. While I do not find this novel as emotionally impactful as Munaweera’s debut, What Lies Between Us does provide another layer to the author’s larger project of considering the place of women in the Sri Lankan diaspora. The narrator and her mother are products of a patriarchal culture in which their agency bears down on their choices is limited. Though not necessarily as strong as her debut (at least in my humble opinion), Munaweera is able to tap into the poetic elegance of the narrator’s keen eyes for observation, and there are certainly many rich, rich passages that make this reading experience a multitextured one.
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A Review of Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Golden Son (William Morrow, 2016).
Shilpi Somaya Gowda moves out of the first novelist’s club with The Golden Son (which follows the bestselling work Secret Daughter, which was earlier reviewed on Asian American Literature Fans). Secret Daughter was “utterly readable,” a phrase I use to praise the writer who knows how to use hook after hook to keep her audience moving on from one page to the next. Gowda uses some similar techniques in this novel to generate narrative momentum. In particular, she shifts perspective between two characters: Anil Patel, the titular golden son, and Leena, who hails from a more lower middle class background. Anil and Leena seem to have had a fledgling romance blooming in their teens, but this brief courtship never comes to fruition, as their paths soon diverge. Anil comes from a landowning farming family. Though Anil is obviously upper middle class due to property ownership, he does lack some cultural capital, at least with respect to cosmopolitan sensibilities, so when he begins his ascendancy from farmer to medical doctor, you can expect some turbulence. Eventually Anil transcends his country “bumpkin” background and receives a prestigious medical residency in the United States. He is slated to work in Parkview, a hospital in an impoverished community in Dallas. The shift to the United States is clearly jarring for Anil, as he grapples with cultural assimilation, workplace politics, interracial romance, and homesickness (especially exacerbated after his father dies). Eventually, the pull of his family requires him to come back at various points, especially because, as the eldest son of this landowning family, Anil is expected to arbitrate over the sharecroppers and tenant farmers who till the family’s land. Leena’s story is far more tragic: she eventually is married off to a boorish man (Girish) who sexually assaults her whenever he wants. Girish’s family is similarly domineering. As the youngest wife in the household, Leena is subjected to physical and emotional abuse, while also being isolated from her birth family. Unbeknownst to Leena, Girish’s family is shaking down her mother and father for more money and more family heirlooms, blackmailing them in a cultural sense for their feeling that Leena is a terrible wife. Leena eventually flees that family due to a harrowing sequence in which Girish attempts to set her on fire. Leena obviously cannot return to Girish, but this situation still leaves her own parents in disgrace (due to cultural expectations that she should be in some sense owned by that family, even despite the peril to her life). Leena’s father succumbs to the depression brought about by these circumstances, but Leena and her mother attempt to forge some sort of life without a man at the head of the household. Leena’s spirit of survival leads her to the pottery wheel, and she uses her artistic talents to produce various commodities and items that can be sold at the market. Thus, she provides her mother and herself a way to earn a stable wage. Gowda patiently plots out of her novel, so that we eventually see how the two seemingly disparate narrative strands will meet. On one of Anil’s journeys back home, he calls in on Leena, after hearing about her many tragedies. Eventually, he encourages Leena to help him out with a sort of makeshift medical clinic, which employs some of her throwaway pottery items to hold some of the necessary equipment. Readers will obviously see the romance plot being telegraphed, but the individual stories are compelling enough on their own that the eventual unity in the plots does not necessarily seem forced and certainly all the more rewarding given the challenges each character faces. At the same time, the social texture of this particular story leads us to see the particularly fragile place of Indian women, especially in rural contexts, in which traditional cultural values leave her body and life to be especially endangered by male patriarchy. While Gowda’s narrative provides Leena with a measure of agency through the development of her artistic talents (which fortunately can be re-routed through the production of commodities), the romance plot is itself then expected to bear the burden of the Indian woman’s upwardly mobile path, a particularly conservative concluding arc that has darker resonances given the earlier issues portrayed in the novel. Gowda does leave some late stage shifts in the romance plot to complicate matters, but the rapidity of pace here throws off an otherwise elegantly choreographed developmental arc. Gowda’s story is, like the one at the center of her first publication, immensely readable, and it took great effort to force myself to finish The Golden Son off another time, because the hour was late. I have no doubts that this work, much like Janice Y.K. Lee’s recently read The Expatriates, will find fervent embrace by a broad readership.
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A Review of Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Language of Secrets (St. Martin’s Minotaur 2016).
So, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s first novel The Unquiet Dead set my expectations very high for the sequel. This detective series follows the investigations of Esa Khattak and his partner, Rachel Getty. We’ll let the folks over at B&N do some of the plot summary for us: “Detective Esa Khattak heads up Canada's Community Policing Section, which handles minority-sensitive cases across all levels of law enforcement. Khattak is still under scrutiny for his last case, so he's surprised when INSET, Canada's national security team, calls him in on another politically sensitive issue. For months, INSET has been investigating a local terrorist cell which is planning an attack on New Year's Day. INSET had an informant, Mohsin Dar, undercover inside the cell. But now, just weeks before the attack, Mohsin has been murdered at the group's training camp deep in the woods. INSET wants Khattak to give the appearance of investigating Mohsin's death, and then to bury the lead. They can't risk exposing their operation, or Mohsin's role in it. But Khattak used to know Mohsin, and he knows he can't just let this murder slide. So Khattak sends his partner, Detective Rachel Getty, undercover into the unsuspecting mosque which houses the terrorist cell. As Rachel tentatively reaches out into the unfamiliar world of Islam, and begins developing relationships with the people of the mosque and the terrorist cell within it, the potential reasons for Mohsin's murder only seem to multiply, from the political and ideological to the intensely personal.” The plot was one of the toughest aspects of this work, as Khan wants us to come into a fictional world in which the investigator’s investigation is not meant to investigate fully the central mystery. That duty is left to another governmental organization. Of course, Khan understands that we still need a plot, so we’re excited when Khattak goes a little bit rogue and wants to get at the bottom of Mohsin Dar’s murder. That process is of course extremely intricate because he cannot ask certain types of questions to the individuals who may or may not have been involved. Khan adds another wrinkle into the detective fiction equation when it becomes apparent that the main suspect is none other than the fiancé of his younger sister Ruksh. This information gets Esa’s hackles up, as he wonders whether or not there is a larger set up occurring in which his family and his own reputation will all be muddied by their connection to the terrorist cell and its charismatic leader Hassan Ashkouri. Getty’s own subplot is probably the most thrilling of the novel, as her undercover work generates much of the tension and anxiety that you would want when reading a detective fiction. We never know how successful her charade is, and there are people aware of her masquerade that can expose her. Further still, it becomes apparent as the investigation goes on that both Khattak and Getty have far less information than they should, and that paucity of knowledge is endangering their lives. The conclusion is certainly the high point of Khan’s work, as the bloody denoument makes for a very interesting set-up between Getty and Khattak for what I hope will be a third installment that we will soon see. Khan’s second novel is certainly a strong follow-up, and she no doubt avoids the sophomore slump, but the impact and the scope of this work may be said to pale in comparison to the debut. Part of this difference I think is attributable to the historical texture of the prior work, as Khan employed multiple third person perspectives to generate more interiority to characters who would later go on to be pivotal to solving the central mystery. For the most part, in the second novel, we’re limited to Khattak and Getty’s mindsets, and the central villains seem less rounded out than the ones that predominated in the first. Nevertheless, detective fiction plans will have much to sink their teeth into, especially with the dynamic interplay between the principle characters.
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A Review of Rajan Khanna’s Rising Tide (Pyr, 2015).
Well, for some reason, I wasn’t sure that Rajan Khanna’s Falling Skies would end up having a sequel, but here it is! The first installment didn’t come off as a YA novel, so I immediately just figured that it would be a stand-alone rather than the requisite trilogy that has become the lingua franca of the genre, even though the ending left so many things open-ended. In any case, in this follow-up, and here is my spoiler warning, our (anti)hero Ben returns, but he’s obviously a little bit more battered and bruised. The opening sees Ben essentially a prisoner on a ship that’s taking on too much water, his romantic foil Miranda nowhere to be found. The ship is commanded by one of Ben’s old allies Mal. Mal has become embittered because on a foraging missions many years ago, Ben left Mal behind for dead. Thus, the novel’s opening sees Ben in a very bad situation: he’s trapped on a sinking ship, and Miranda is likely also being held hostage somewhere else on the ship. So, Ben basically strikes a deal with Mal to find him some water pumps, so that the ship won’t sink; this quest would then potentially allow Ben to leave the ship with Miranda. As loyal readers will recall, Miranda is the intrepid scientist from the first book, who is still seeking a cure for the plague that has wiped out most of the human population and turned them into Ferals. The vocabulary that grounded the first novel is still obviously in play here: the two primary eras are the Clean, the time before the plague, and the Sick, the time after the plague. Those who are infected through blood contact eventually Fade, and then turn into a Feral. Khanna adds some texture to this novel by interspersing the primary first person narrative perspective from Ben’s point of view with Miranda’s journal excerpts. Khanna’s strength is in the pacing: there’s always some sort of issue to resolve, some challenge to overcome, so we’re moving on briskly. The asides concerning the romance plot can seem sometimes a little bit too forced, but I suppose that’s part of the challenge in this genre, which sometimes must balance action with courtship. Where’s the time for a little bit of love when bloodthirsty zombie-like creatures are everywhere and the humans that are left seem just as craven? Apparently, there’s always enough time. A similar issue came up in Susan Ee’s World After series, but I suppose we should applaud those who are making time to find romance in a world gone basically to the zombies. Maybe, I’m just a super jaded reader! HAHA! But I digress: the last half of the book kicks things into high gear, as Miranda and Ben are able to escape from Mal’s ship; they eventually discover that Miranda’s former science friends are still alive, so they go back to an old encampment (with a name I can’t spell to save my life right now) to get some supplies, some help, and the airships that will be required to make the rescue mission go as smoothly as possible. This mission goes surprisingly well, and they are able to rescue some of Miranda’s old comrades, while adding some new potential allies to the mix, but Khanna has some plotting tricks up his sleeve that make the last 50 or so pages excruciatingly depressing. It was so depressing in fact that I’m not sure how well I will recover in case there’s another installment or two to be added. The zombie plague genre can get pretty stale quickly, so Khanna’s full commitment to engaging this form is well worth the price of reading admission: there’s enough to mischief and mayhem to please the devoted speculative fiction reader. It’s also of course interesting to discuss elements such as race, ethnicity, and social difference in speculative fiction because those elements still remain in play in some ways; much revolves around access to resources, which creates a new class structures and forms of social oppression that determine how we align ourselves as readers amongst this new playing field of heroes and villains.
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A Review of Padma Lakshmi’s Love, Loss, and What We Ate (HarperCollins, 2016)
Ah, the burn out factor! The good news is when you can’t work on an article, can’t get enough inspiration for writing a grant proposal, you can always read something a little bit more lighthearted and uplifting. I chose Padma Lakshmi’s Love, Loss, and What We Ate, which was absolutely the right choice. For a description, we’ll let B&N take it away: “Long before Padma Lakshmi ever stepped onto a television set, she learned that how we eat is an extension of how we love, how we comfort, how we forge a sense of home—and how we taste the world as we navigate our way through it. Shuttling between continents as a child, she lived a life of dislocation that would become habit as an adult, never quite at home in the world. And yet, through all her travels, her favorite food remained the simple rice she first ate sitting on the cool floor of her grandmother’s kitchen in South India. Poignant and surprising, Love, Loss, and What We Ate is Lakshmi’s extraordinary account of her journey from that humble kitchen, ruled by ferocious and unforgettable women, to the judges’ table of Top Chef and beyond. It chronicles the fierce devotion of the remarkable people who shaped her along the way, from her headstrong mother who flouted conservative Indian convention to make a life in New York, to her Brahmin grandfather—a brilliant engineer with an irrepressible sweet tooth—to the man seemingly wrong for her in every way who proved to be her truest ally. A memoir rich with sensual prose and punctuated with evocative recipes, it is alive with the scents, tastes, and textures of a life that spans complex geographies both internal and external. Love, Loss, and What We Ate is an intimate and unexpected story of food and family—both the ones we are born to and the ones we create—and their enduring legacies.” So, the editorial description here makes the memoir something perhaps a little bit more far-reaching and “extraordinary” than I would call it, but those interested in literary things will be intrigued for the simple fact that Lakshmi was once married to Salman Rushdie. The chapters devoted to that marriage are mostly taken up in the first arc of the book, and there’s not much of a tell-all aspect, but the random tidbits were certainly of note. For instance, Lakshmi would routinely hold dinner parties that would have people attending such as Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, and Susan Sontag. Otherwise, the memoir has some definite strength: there’s a really wonderful exploration of physical beauty, especially from the perspective of someone darker skinned in the modeling industry and someone who had to face the prospect of climbing that career ladder with a scar that she at first considered a physical deformity. Indeed, Lakshmi would be in a serious car accident at a young age that would leave a large scar on her arm. The latter half of the book details much of Lakshmi’s complicated high-risk pregnancy due to her late diagnosis of endometriosis. Further still, the paternity of the child is put into question, as Lakshmi is dating two men around the time. Of course, billed as a food memoir, there are recipes appropriately peppered throughout the book, and it’s clear that Lakshmi’s relationship with food is one of her more intimate and important ones, but where this memoir soars most is Lakshmi’s self-conscious understanding of her romances. She’s especially keen on figuring out why she is drawn to certain men, and what she finds so compelling about even the most unexpected attractions. Certainly, this book is required reading for the fan of the genre of the food memoir.
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A Review of Shobha Rao’s An Unrestored Woman (Flatirons Books, 2016).
Well, this collection took me entirely by welcome surprise. First of all, I thought this work was a novel, simply because there was no word “stories” attached to the title. I suppose it would be more apt to be called a “story cycle,” because the work is influenced by the historical event of partition and its reverberations across time, especially in its effects upon the lives of women. As is so often the case, we let B&N complete some of the book description for us: “1947: the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into two separate countries, India and Pakistan. And with one decree, countless lives are changed forever. An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity: a new mother is trapped on the wrong side of the border; a soldier finds the love of his life but is powerless to act on it; an ambitious servant seduces both master and mistress; a young prostitute quietly, inexorably plots revenge on the madam who holds her hostage. Caught in a world of shifting borders, Rao’s characters have reached their tipping points. In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.” The best stories I found to appear up in the front of the collection, so I’ll concentrate on those, especially in the ingenious ways that Rao make full use of the story cycle form. In the title story, a woman finds out her husband has died during Partition and is forced to go to a camp for the “unrestored,” a term used to describe women who need to be repatriated to another country in the wake of Partition due to their religious backgrounds which place them in a geographical location hostile to their faith. While in that camp, this woman engages in a homoerotic relationship with another widow, but this connection is terminated when the woman discovers that her husband is actually alive. The second story, “The Merchant’s Mistress” follows the adventures of Renu, who was the other widow in the first story, and her new life as a maidservant of a rich couple. She becomes the mistress of both the husband and the wife, and later, deciding that she must continue to have at least one of these lovers, takes on the identity of a man in order to become a shipmate for a crew on its way to Africa, the location where the merchant husband will be for many months. The cohesion of the story cycle thus requires some readerly attention, which is part of the fun: we’re looking to see which character might yet again reappear in another story. In the third, “The Imperial Police,” we’re taken to a fictional world in which a British military officer, Jenkins, finds himself infatuated with an Indian man, who later is killed during the violence that occurs in relation to Partition. Jenkins, we discover, has queer leanings, and Rao deftly explores the difficulties of Jenkins’ queerness especially in a transnational postcolonial context: what place can there be for this kind of same sex desire, this story seems to suggest, especially when the Indian man dies. In “Unleashed,” two sisters must navigate a complex web of sexual triangulation that continually ties them together. Jenkins, who appeared as the central character in “The Imperial Police” now takes on a supporting role, as a doorman and elevator operator for the building in which the protagonist lives. Jenkins comes to be a source of comfort when the protagonist discovers that her sister is engaging in an affair with her husband, an indiscretion that reminds her of a problematic moment in their high school years involving the exploration of their sexualities while at a party. Other stories work in a similar fashion, and the entire collection was a pleasure to read through. Rao’s debut is most definitely assured; the range of narrative perspectives and associated social contexts make the reading experience expansive and often unexpectedly provocative. Again, one of the pleasant surprises of this reading year; this book will probably make a future appearance in one of my classes.
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