Following her successful and highly-acclaimed debut novel, Atlas of Unknowns (India Currents, August 2009), Tania James’ latest offering is Aerogrammes: And Other Stories, a collection of tightly-written, language-loving short fiction. These nine stories explore personal unease, family disappointment, and acceptance in lieu of compromise.
Aerogrammes consists of stand-alone stories, making it convenient to pick up the book and read at will rather than follow a prescribed sequence. All of the stories previously appeared in Boston Review, Granta, Kenyon Review, and other reputable short fiction outlets before they found a communal home at Knopf. Recently, the collection was included in Oprah’s Summer Reading List.
With her crisp imagery and clean writing, James sees the poignant humor in each character’s unique situation and need to connect, but she never stoops to ridiculing them. Instead, with a loving and tender hand, she oversees her characters who are varied in age, location, and ability to adjust their own degree of feeling adrift in a world they can’t control. Emotions, small or overwhelming, bubble with a need to find balance.
In “What to Do with Henry,” James examines the displacement and struggles of a chimp and young girl from Sierra Leone, both adopted and raised by a woman in the United States. When Henry the chimp is handed over to a zoo, he adapts—with great effort— while his human sister, Neneh, realizes that she needs him. The line between chimpanzee and human is, for a time, blurred enough that both “siblings” reach out to each other with the hope that life could be as it once was.
The 8-year old narrator of “The Gulf” tells a story of confusion (is the man in the living room really the same as the man she knows as her father via a photo?) based on distance and time. The only fatherless child at her Holy Communion, she felt the sting of omission: “I was his absence. Even in my new white veil and black patent shoes, I was the dented suitcase he had left behind, the one with no wheels.” Having lived half her life creating fantasies about her father, his exotic work, and derring-do escape from evil employers in Dubai, she is perplexed by the man who finally shows up on their doorstep, beat down, melancholy, and unaffectionate.
“Light & Luminous” tells the story of Minal Auntie, who supports herself by teaching classical Indian dance in her home. To supplement her income, she works at a grocery store far enough away that friends and acquaintances won’t find out. An offhand compliment revives her lost dreams of success and praise, and a newfound competitive streak leads her down the trail of vanity and lies.
In the title story, “Aerogrammes,” Hari Panicker, a new resident at a retirement home, is alone and anxious to hear from his absent son. By accident, he befriends a neighbor, May Daly, who asks him endless questions about Bombay even though he is from Kerala. Eventually, Hari finds himself wondering if May and his other neighbors have become the family he so desperately longs for.
Each story opens with an intriguing statement, drawing the reader in effortlessly. “The Gulf” begins: “In later years I will come to avoid him, but for now, I am eight years old, and the man everyone says is my father is sitting in the living room.” “Ethnic Ken” begins curiously, stating “My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel.” “Girl Marries Ghost” tells us “That year, thousands entered the lottery for only handful of husbands.”
Questions form. Interest heightens. The guessing game begins, and the reader is hooked. At the conclusion of each story, it is apparent that there is more ground to be had, but the clipped endings are, nonetheless, satisfying.
While James’ talents were displayed more completely in her novel, she has created a collection that will surprise and entertain from the first to the last page.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is happily at work on her young adult novel.