Voices in Fiction
Pritchard, William H., The Hudson Review
Voices in Fiction
SO MANY NOVELS CLAMORING FOR ATTENTION, and this partial roundup is devoted almost entirely to old hands. But first, a first book of stories by a talented young writer.1 In an interview, Nalini Jones numbers among her heroes Chekhov, in whose fiction, she remarks, "just when we imagine all is setded and concluded, he suddenly makes a narrative or descriptive gesture outward"-which gesture moves the story's terrain "toward the unknown, the undiscovered." The most notable thing about her nine stories is that invariably a reader's attempt to predict how any one will come out is doomed. Most of them take place in Santa Clara, an imagined neighborhood in India's Mumbai (Bombay) similar in many respects to one in which Jones's mother grew up. Some of the same characters show up in different stories, at different stages of their lives. In the opening one, "In the Garden," ten-year-old Marian Almeida comes home early from a piano lesson to find an empty house and decides to try on one of her mother's saris. By the story's end she has been rescued from a poisonous tree viper by her father and in die process moved into hitherto undiscovered country. In a later story, now married and living in America, she prepares to visit India with a friend; in another one, "I Think of You Every Day," she is again a schoolgirl in India, writing to her slightly older brother Simon who has been sent away to a Catholic pre-seminary school and is desperately lonely. Marian's mother, fiercely committed to the education she wants for her son, withholds details of his unhappiness from the family until Marian discovers a letter in which Simon's grief is manifest. Just when you begin to think it will be a story of the mother's comeuppance when the truth comes out, things turn away as suddenly we move ahead four years with Simon now a hardened school veteran who comes home to visit. Now the main focus is on his younger brother Jude, on the verge of losing his first tooth. Simon persuades Jude to use the string-tied-todoorknob technique of extraction, slams the door, but the tooth doesn't come out, much to Jude's pain and fright. Then the story ends with Marian, listening to the sounds of her mother comforting Jude and feeling "the current of some greater violence running through her family," as she thinks back to the letter from Simon she read and destroyed. The movement in each of these stories is tricky, wayward, unpredictable. Like Alice Munro's stories, Jones's need to be reread, an indication of the satisfying complication her view of life, and of writing, exhibits.
One of the writers Nalini Jones mentions as an "influence" is Graham Swift, and Swift's seventh novel shows all of his expected professionalism and expertise.2 Tomorrow, narrated throughout by a first-person voice, a woman awake in bed next to her sleeping husband, begins this way as she addresses their two children:
You're asleep, my angels, I assume. So, to my amazement and relief, is your father, like a man finding it in him to sleep on the eve of his execution. He'll need all he can muster tomorrow. I'm the only one awake in this house on this night before the day that will change all of our lives.
Wondering what the big deal is? We find out about halfway dirough the book (so I can reveal it) that they're not splitting up, nor does he have terminal cancer, nor was he caught robbing a bank. No, all he had was a sperm deficiency, which caused him ("Mikey") and his wife Paula to go the route of artificial insemination. Wakeful and worried Paula takes die opportunity to give the children a full-scale rehearsal of how she and Mikey met, what their respective parents were like, how they married and failed to conceive, got a cat named Otis instead, how Otis disappeared one night but came back . . . etc. etc. The book ends, naturally, before tomorrow dawns, but I suspect the kids (they're both teenagers) will take this news in a mature way and get on with their lives, as they say in the soap operas. …