A strong sense of character and place, and an impressive variety of themes and tones, distinguish this striking debut collection by a talented Indian-born American writer.
The ten stories, set in both India and the US, frequently deal with culture contrast and shock, and make especially good use of narrators and viewpoint characters who only partially understand the experiences they’re relating. For example, preadolescent Chik-Chik, a restaurant delivery boy whose romantic fascination with “The Lodger in Room 726” trembles—as he scarcely realizes—on the brink of a first sexual experience; or the young girl (in “Summer”) who’s molested while (literally) “play-acting” with her teenaged cousin; or the orphaned protagonist of “My Grandfather Dreams of Fences,” who must grow up before he grasps the motivating forces of his eponymous relative’s harsh treatment of less prosperous neighbors. The distances between people are also subtly traversed in the bittersweet title piece, about a mild-mannered husband whose chance viewing of a Western porn film troubles his relationship with his conservative wife; and the moving “Sixteen Days in December,” in which a young journalist’s conflicted feelings for her stroke-ridden father (and mentor) are observed against a background of heightening Hindu/Muslim violence. The best stories are those animated by the more unusual premises: notably “The Sculptor of Sands,” about a young artist whose discovery of a dead woman’s body sharpens his empathy and imagination to the point where he becomes a legendary—and, ultimately, mysteriously elusive—local figure; and “The Curry leaf Tree,” an intriguing fable in which young Dilip Alva, born with “a most sensitive nose” that enables him to distinguish subtle flavor combinations, survives the loss of his “gift,” a traumatic relocation to America, and a rickety marriage to “a woman capable of serving mass-produced, cheese-covered pizza, out of spite.”
Comparable to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-winner, Interpreter of Maladies, and very probably the beginning of a fine career.