Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri – Book Review

In between book club reading, I’ve revisited one of my favourite short story collections, which is destined to be one of those books I take off the shelf again and again. I’ve heard a few people say that they find short stories frustrating; it’s probably the way they toss you out of the world created by the author just when the reader gets into the story and characters. And for sure, a novel offers a more engrossing experience you can get properly lost in. But as a reader, few things are as satisfying to me as an effortlessly perfect short story that makes an impression and creates a lived-in world in a space of a few pages, and Lahiri is one of the best authors I’ve read (Pulitzer Prize people agreed as well, since this collection won the 2000 fiction prize).

The nine stories in Interpreter of Maladies don’t share settings or characters, but are connected by theme and unifying mood. Lahiri writes about India and Indian immigrant experience, whether it’s about life abroad in the USA or back in India. As for the mood, one way to describe it would be the kind of gentle melancholy that brings to mind Kazuo Ishiguro’s books. The stories aren’t exactly depressing, even though some end badly for their protagonists, but they’re haunted by a sense of quiet, subdued sadness and contemplation. They are also wonderfully rich and textured, with a fine eye for details, engaging descriptions of the ordinary places and things, and a sense of invisible nooks and corners lurking below the surface of a story, where something unspoken resides. Oh and it has some great descriptions of food and cooking, which are not some unnecessary detours, but simply there because they’re an essential part of the fabric of the characters’ lives.

Though the lives described are distinctly Indian and Indian culture is weaved in throughout, they also shed light on the universal immigrant experience that I myself find relatable. In particular, some of the stories perfectly capture the weightless, disconnected feeling resulting from a recent move to a new country, which can be tough going even when your overall experience is positive and hopeful.

Even though all stories are outstanding, my personal favourites are about the troubled personal relationships. A Temporary Matter, the very first story, is about a couple grappling with the tragedy of miscarriage and finding a way to communicate when the electricity in their Boston neighbourhood is cut off for an hour every evening. In This Blessed House, a newly married couple who are yet to truly get to know or love each other discover bizarre Christian paraphernalia after moving into their new house. Both serve as an example of a just-right, precisely balanced short story.

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