Recently I struggled to finish a newly published book of short stories, which surprised me, as it had received reasonable reviews. The storylines were okay, but weren’t dynamic, and the characters didn’t draw me in. I just didn’t like all twenty of the stories, apart from one.
I was bewailing my dislike of this book to a writing friend, who told me I’d love Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, and lent it to me.
The comparison between the two books couldn’t have been more different. Whereas I’d disliked that other book of short stories, I happily consumed this one. And the reasons? Lahiri is able to write such compelling characters, whose plights are so personal and touching. She writes of Indian immigrants, expats and first-generation Americans, who are seeking as many do, a way forward in life, and find themselves trying to reconcile the cultural differences so alien to their own. I am neither Indian nor American, but I could feel the plight of these characters; whether it be an arranged-marriage wife struggling alone in a university apartment while her husband works or a the grief of a couple whose baby dies; these situations of loneliness, loss, grief, and division are universal themes. I became invested in these characters’ lives, afraid for them, hoping for a better way of being, and engaged on an emotional level; this is something every writer wishes to achieve.
I was reminded of an email I’d received from a stranger, a couple of months back, who felt compelled to write to me after reading my novel The (almost) true story of a Man called Jack. He told me how he had not been able to finish many recent books, and was delighted when he read mine, as he didn’t wish it to finish. Being a fictionalised memoir, about my father and young family, I couldn’t guess what the reception to this story would be for readers outside the family, and I am pleased to say that he wasn’t the only one to write to me in a similar vein.
I am currently working on a new novel, and always wish to write the ‘best’ words. That is why it is so important to read the best books. And I hope that Jhumpa Lahiri won’t mind, but this is writing I will seek to emulate. Her writing is nothing short of stunning. Thank you Jhumpa, I shall be sourcing more of your books to read, as these stories were inspiring. And thank you Gabby, for lending me the book.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, published 1999, by Houghton Mifflin, New York.