New year, new reading

This past week I have had the very great pleasure of reading Jhumpa Lahiri for the first time, via Unaccustomed Earth. The collection’s titular entry is basically perfect: I haven’t been so transported by a short story in a long time, possibly not since Greg Egan’s ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful’ blew my fifteen-year-old mind, or since A.S. Byatt scared the bejesus out of me for a week five or six years ago (‘The Thing in the Forest’). But the rest of the volume is also consistently superb. Lahiri knits bare, weightless sequences of detail together with compassion and grace. My only niggle is that every story centres on families which are affluent and hypereducated (I’m not sure, in fact, that there is a single one which doesn’t have a PhD involved). This feels a bit oddly unbalanced, but it seems uncharitable to hold that against the book when there is drama and craft aplenty to be found in its tales regardless.

My year began between bits of Claire Tham. I liked how The Inlet started, but it petered out toward the middle and end. I agree with much of what Kirat Kaur and Pooja Makhijani have said about its lopsided focus; and in addition, I struggled with the fact that the dominant mode of so many of Tham’s characters is ennui. After a bit, all that boredom gets, well, boring. The same issue bedevilled Fascist Rock and made me give up on Saving the Rainforest after the first story. I like Tham best when her people care about something: there’s the compellingly drawn conflict between The Inlet‘s Willy Gan and his nephew, for instance; Winston’s ambition; Ling’s gift of a parrot to an old man. But these moments didn’t come often enough.

On a smaller note: I suspend a lot of judgment about how to deal with different registers and Englishes in fiction set in Singapore. In my view, there’s no easy or obvious approach for writers to take, and I dislike the idea of policing text for the so-called ‘authenticity’ of Singapore English. (Maud knows I speak weirdly and I exist.) But one scene with Cheung Fai rather jars, because he uses the word ‘ersatz’ in conversation, which in itself is fine, except he’s allegedly allergic to all things atas, and the exchange in question goes out of its way to imply that he’s oblivious to the (un)likelihood of his colleague understanding it. So the whole thing just seemed a bit confused. This is just a nit, though.

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