C.G. Menon. Subjunctive Moods. Dahlia Publishing Limited
The Oxford Dictionary defines subjunctive as a specific verb form. It usually expresses something that you wish for, or a hypothetical rather than actual situation. Eg. If only I were ten years younger.
Life is full of ‘if only’ moments. If only I had a different job, partner, life… . The Art of Losing isn’t hard to master said Elizabeth Bishop – a sentiment with which the characters in Menon’s stories would no doubt agree as they lose husbands, wives, partners, youth, memories, identity, life.
Menon, not unlike Loveday reviewed above, skewers the claustrophobia and anxiety of modern life, its obsession with media constructs of ‘happiness’ and the chasm that exists between those pictures in the red tops and glossies and what passes for reality in most people’s lives. In particular the stories offer a cross cultural examination of the lives of women when we learn, unsurprisingly, that white or Asian, pink or yellow or green, the burdens are the same, and of course the joys.
Yet underneath the bare light bulbs and cheap plastic chairs that inhabit these stories more ancient voices call, of dragons, seascapes, jackfruit flowers. Both Menon and Loveday are part of a new generation of writers who are not settling for the fake news they’ve been sold by decades of cynical neoliberalism. While these are not new ideas and there is much literature out there dealing with the same topics, it is the writer’s job to create unique characters with believable individual lives, to give us a moment’s insight and empathy into someone else’s reality which is, remarkably, not unlike our own. These stories achieve that.
Many of the characters are caught at moments of great change or even crisis in their lives; the heartbreak of a single mother who has her child taken away by Social Services (‘Foxgloves’); the intolerable pressures of the modern workplace (‘So long, so long’). The settings of the stories stretch from Kerala to Kuala Lumpur to Northumberland but the ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I doing here?’ problems remain.
Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch that the cage door had opened but no-one flew out. It feels that many of the female characters of Menon’s stories are sitting there with the door open, afraid.
For example, In ‘For you are Julia’ a telephone call from a long ago lover leads to an interior examination of boredom and inadequacy.
Tom sees nothing but joy as the hymn puts it. He squints into the sun and sees another woman, and he never dreams it’s only me; only Julia tricked out with sunbeams and cataracts.
In a moment of pure Angela Carter, a bride is:
‘veiled in lace and trussed up in silk, and her feet are squeezed in blood red shoes. The church is silent in a bright, bitter pause and outside the summer day is ending.’
Or this from one of my favourite stories in the collection: ‘I see you in triplicate’ Caroline’s husband collecting his belongings from what was the family home, goes off with her Spanish class enrolment form (thinking it was a mortgage document). He then realises ‘the least of his mistakes’ and pushes the form back through the letterbox.
In the kitchen meanwhile Caroline is gnawing at the shining rind of a granny smith and drinking gin from a jar that once held home-made chutney.
I loved that jar of chutney for it represents the very pinnacle of the earth mother dream, turned to gin soaked nightmare.
In “So long So long” , a junior surgeon faces the failure of his consultant’s examinations for the second time much exacerbated by his wife’s derision. When he complains that he has a long list of bypasses to perform that day she snaps back:
‘Everything bypasses your heart.’
Densely written in descriptive and imagistic prose these stories are as I imagine might be a visit to Bombay (I’ve never been!) – the images tumbling over one another, the sights and sounds and smells. I could have wished occasionally for a little more breathing space in the sentences around the adjective-laden imagery, but this is an excellent first collection of stories from this prizewinning author and rising star.