"... people were all different things at the same time. They were like onions under fine layers of skin; you didn't ever peel away a last layer, because the layers were what they were"
So thinks a character in the short story 'The Tutor'. This in a nut shell is what 'Nell Freudenberger's debut collection 'Lucky Girls' is all about. The blurbs about the book place much emphasis on the fact that the stories are set mostly in Southeast Asia and particularly India, but the backdrop for these stories are not not as important as the blurbs may indicate (more on that later).
The book starts off with the title story 'Lucky Girls', which is about the narrator an American woman meeting Mrs.Chawla, the mother of a deceased Indian (married) man Arun, with whom she had an affair. The story is mostly about the interactions between the two. The tentativeness present in the narrator during the first meeting contrasting with the confident demeanor of Mrs.Chawla who does not make her disapproval known explicitly or in anger, but just states things in a matter of fact manner have been brought out with precise clarity. When the narrator says that she should have been present when Arun passed away Mrs.Chawla says
"You didn't belong there, she said. Nobody would have known what you were".
There is no anger or recrimination in it, just a statement as to what she thinks.
Though the events and actions of the characters are brought out clearly, the actual intent behind them is always behind a fog as it were, with us not being entirely sure of their motives, lending credence to the lines given in the beginning of the post. For e.g. when the narrator thanks Laxmi, Arun's wife, for helping here out, Laxmi says
"I have my sons", she said casually. "And you have no one."
Here one is not sure where she is taunting the narrator or just stating a fact, as there is not outward indication of Laxmi being a vindictive person. It is these moments of uncertainty in human relations that is the focus of the entire book. This story has been included in the 'Granta Book Of American' Short story' edited by Richard Ford which was my first introduction to Freudenberger.
'The Orphan' is probably the most puzzling story of the collection. Alice and Jeff a middle aged couple have divorced and go to Thailand on a trip to visit their son and daughter who are living there to inform them about the divorce. It's clear from the first time when we see the 4 get together that there is something gone irreversibly bent in the family. The four of them are completely awkward with the meeting, the awkwardness giving way sometimes to sniping at each other. This is where Freudenberger is at her best, bring out the manner in which the four of them circle each other, treading on tip toe as if to avoid breaking anything more, but never giving us the reason why this family has grown so apart. In fact Mandy at a point thinks
"She laughs, but she's glad that she's not the only one who can't talk to their children"
Is this the natural progression of any family, one that we do not wish to acknowledge, wanting to be safe and secure in the knowledge that families are forever. It's not that the 4 members hate each other, it's just they have all gone so far apart, that each one could be a stranger to the other. One doesn't know why Mandy Alice's daughter puts with a man who she says sexually assaulted her (in the beginning of the story). When Alice meets her in Thailand, Mandy is still with him, she neither denies the sexual assault incident nor does give any reason for staying with him, going so far as to say that maybe she liked it rough. Finally as the story ends, one wonders whether the title 'The Orphan' in a way refers to each individual family member given that they seem to be so alone (even Jeff who has since taken up with another woman). There is a piece of conversation at the beginning of the story which subtly shows the absurdity of the way in which the human mind functions and how it comes out as conversation. Mandy Alice's daughter calls up and says that she has been sexually assaulted, at a particular point the conversation takes a turn, when Alice says
".... You have to go to the hospital. Is there a hospital there?"
"Is there a hospital? Mom, I'm in Bangkok - maybe you've heard of it? Is there a hospital?"
"Then you can go there. Get in a cab and go there". She refrains from asking whether they have cabs.
"I don't usually take cabs here, Mom"
One can see that the conversation has completely turned on it's head with both of them disassociating from the actual incident and almost quibbling over minor things when something more important has happened. Given the context of their conversation the above exchange may stick out like a sore thumb, but when you factor in the capacity of the human mind to somehow flush of things it does not want to discuss and the manner it can get numbed in many cases, it does make perfect sense. It's one of the many subtle nuances that Freudenberger applies in all the stories, an eye for detail while describing the events and an ear for dialogue when recording the conversations.
'Outside the Eastern Gate' is somewhat similar in mood to 'The Orphans', where the narrator goes to meet her father in India who may be suffering from the beginning stages of alzheimer's. Through narrative snapshots of events from the past and in the present, we get a glimpse of another family life in the 60's, a family where everything seems perfect outwardly, but there is a sense of something less appealing just beneath surface. This air of disquiet hangs over most of the other stories too, where the reader's mind either goes back to the past to think about what could have happened and to the future thinking about how things could go wrong. Freudenberger with her back and forth narrative, allowing us one glimpse at a time of the past and present but never giving us the full picture always keeps us on tenterhooks. Here, in this story we do not know what the narrator is after, what is it that keeps haunting her from the past. The narrator's mother obviously plays a central role in this, but this is again left to us to interpret in whatever way we want. There is a hint that the mother could have been suffering from depression, but never mentioned explicitly. There is poignant moment in the story, when the narrator as a kid feels sad and starts crying. Her mother sees this and asks her what's wrong.
"I don't know what it is," I sobbed. I can't stop."
"Oh God", my mother said.........................."
"You too", she said."Not you too"
The last line tells more more than what could be said in an entire chapter about the mother. (Many characters are unnamed in the stories, leading to curious mix of alienation and at the same time having an affinity with the reader at the end of the stories). More than anything, what struck me here was the mother could have been aware of her own depression and her failing battle against it, that seemed more heartbreaking than her sorrow for her child. I was reminded of 'The Bell Jar when I read this particular conversation, the hopeless battle against one's own mind.
In "The Tutor" an young American girl living with her father in India takes tuition with an Indian tutor (Zubin), who has returned from America. Through a series of snapshots of the past, we get to know the reason for the girl's turmoil and also the inner conflicts of the Tutor, why he returned from America. In a kind of reversal of the themes in the other stories, this story shows how an Indian adjusts in America (no there is no major homesickness or a love for the homeland). There is no mention about the time when this story is set, but from the manner in which people react to Zubin, one can imagine that it would have been up to the early to mid 90's when going to the US was still a huge thing and an American desi a prize catch in the marriage market. ('Hyderabad blues' anyone?). This story again has a non-ending, but fits in with the overall style of the book, where we are only allowed to view a part of the characters lives and even then there is no final resolution to the part that we view.
"Letter from the Last Bastion", has a different narrative format. An unnamed girl writes a letter to a university as part of her interview process to it. In the letter she describes some events from the life of Henry, a reputed writer and contrasts it with the events that are described in his novels. The story starts of as an exploration into the ages old discussion of reality in fiction, how much of an author is actually present in his works. We see how some events in Henry's life have been transported into his works as it is, some events which have been changed to a great extent and we think about how/when does an author decide when/how much of what actually happened should go into his works. The story then diverges into focusing on the girl. Who is she, how does she know so much about Henry, what is their relationship are some questions that come to our mind as we read it. It's not as if the author shifts the focus into the girl, but it's a natural progression as we read some events Harry's life which could not be known to just about anyone. The only issue I had with this story was the ending, which seemed to conform to an "ending", when the other stories didn't seem to have an ending as such, but just the drawing down of the curtain of a particular act in the characters lives. The ending in this story didn't seem forced anyway, in fact it's quite logical too, but compared to the other stories it didn't seem to fit in with the overall pattern of the collection.
As I said in the beginning if you expect any expatriate experiences of living in Asia/India you would be disappointed. The canvas of these stories are just that, they do not become characters in themselves as it happens in several novels/stories. This is because the characters in these stories are not suffering from any form of longing for their country and neither do they want to get out of where ever they are living because they hate it. Their problems stem from the inside, their relationship with their parents, with the other people they meet, problems that do not have a great deal to do with the country to live in, but problems in the dynamics of the human relationship which could probably be the same in any country. As one of the characters in the book says
"Travelling is for people who don't know how to be happy", so setting the book
outside America could be a result of the characters personal issues more than anything else.
So has Freudenberger just put the canvas as East just because it would be exotic, not at all?. It's more a reflection of the increased communication between the east and the west in the last 20 years, when the East is looked upon a place with people just like in the West, instead of just just a land of Sadhus, Snakes, Rope climbing, babas sitting on thorns which was the staple image of the East till about the 90's. It's still the same in some cases, but this collection is an indication that things are changing. When any foreigner writes about a country he has only visited, he can either be condescending or downright vicious or be afraid of his own feelings that may hurt the people of the country he is writing and end up not giving an opinion at all. Lets see what Alice ('The Orphans') thinks on seeing a Mercedes in Thailand
"The only other car in the parking lot is a teal Mercedes-Benz, which seems out of place in a Third World Country. She knows better than to comment on this...
In a couple of lines, we not only get to see the typical mindset of a person from a first world country viewing the 3rd world ones, but also the guilt/apprehension he/she feels in feeling these thoughts and his/her reluctance to voice these thoughts. It may seem like a small thing, but when you think about it, it can lead you to a lot of things. Freudenberger keeps the canvas understated, but strong enough that we get a sense of the place where the stories are set and do not see that they happen in a vacuum. When Vivian ('Outside the Eastern Gate' ), says on the heavy traffic in India
Vivian slammed on the breaks. "Fucking Biharis"
"It's gotten worse," I said, about the traffic.
"It gets worse every year,", Vivian said. "You have no idea"
you realize that Vivian is as domiciled as anyone in India. That's why she is able to rant at the traffic and abuse without any thought as to how it would look. It's the contrast between what Alice thinks about Thailand but does not say as she has just come there and Vivian who has been living in India for a very long time now. That's why even the abuse on Biharis does not come out as racist, because Vivian is so integrated into the Indian lifestyle (and roads). So people who read this do not start branding Freudenberger as racist. The only observation I found a bit jarring was in 'Outside the Eastern Gate' where the narrator mentions shoe shine boys outside the Delhi international airport. The setting of the story is in the late 90's and I was surprised that shoe shine boys still operated during that period. I would have thought shoe shining would have become less prevalent by then, but maybe the author did indeed experience it.
I was constantly reminded of Alice Munro and Deborah Eisenberg when I read this book. (Freudenberger states Munro as one of her favorite authors). It's not that they share the same canvas or narrative style or some such external thing. The way in which Freudenberger manages to flesh out the characters , without telling too much, but only showing us (always following the adage don't tell, only show) and leaving a lot for us to think about, it is the result that she achieves that reminds me of Munro and Eisenberg. Have you ever wondered in the evenings when you return from work or when you are at your window at dusk seeing people pass by, the brightly lit windows in the houses opposite, have you wondered about what takes place within those walls, what sort of domestic/financial problem is the husband/wife/father/mother/son/daughter returning home to? I am not talking about gossip but a state of mind where you feel a curious affinity with all those people who you don't know nothing about, but at that moment feel close too. Well you could get that sort of a feeling in this book where you are transported smack in the middle of domestic turmoil, memories of the past and you can't help but become one of them. For a debut collection, this is of very high quality and one can only hope that better things would be written by her. This was first published in 2004, so I have been pretty late in reading it, but she is one writer I would be on the look out for from now on.
Having said all this, I must also mention that this is a brooding and intense book, one which is relentless in it's evisceration of the upper layer of relationships. One cannot just move on from one story to another, it requires a bit of time to assimilate what one has read before moving to the next. The consequence could be that either you like the book or hate it, particularly it's languid pace, the non-endings etc. I belong to the former category and this is one of the best books I have read this year. Don't miss it.