Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Subjunctive Moods by C G Menon

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I first read ‘Watermelon Seeds’ by C G Menon in the anthology Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani collective, also published by Dahlia Books. It was one of my favourite stories in the book, so I had high hopes for Subjunctive Moods, Menon’s own collection, and it did not disappoint.

The definition of a subjunctive mood is ‘a grammatical construction with expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual.’ A common thread running through this collection is imagining lives as they could have been, if things had turned out just a little differently, or sometimes as they might still turn out to be. For one hour each year, as the clocks go back, one woman constructs an imaginary affair with a man she broke up with at university. Another dabbles with an actual affair, whilst in yet another returns to a secret place from her childhood to lay to rest her longing for a life where her son did not die.

The collection moves back and forth between Malaysia and Britain (with a single foray into Australia thrown in for good measure). The British stories take place in the hard, rocky corners of these islands – on the slag heaps of South Wales, the moorlands around Middlesborough, the coast by the Farne Islands.

Menon has a gift for finding fresh and arresting turns of phrase. The wife of a man with a wandering eye watches a beautiful woman as “her reflection swims up into his empty hands.” A troubled young mother who has already had one child taken from her contemplates, “a lifetime of trudging up her terraced street with a pram and a hangover and her mistakes dragging behind her like a sodden length of rope.”

Even before I found the first story set in Wales, Menon’s language was reminding me of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Her description of a faithless husband sloping off back to his mistress, “to be checked off her lists and hung up in her kitchen with the dinner menus, where he will dangle uselessly for several years,” is irresistibly reminiscent of Mr and Mrs Ogmore Pritchard.

Menon weaves threads of old beliefs – Malayan, Welsh, Hindu – into some of the stories to give a hint of magic realism. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, which introduced me to pontianaks – the malign, vampire-like female ghosts of Malaysia – before finding them again here, in two of Menon’s stories. But here too is the makara, the Hindu sea monster, and the piece of iron that keeps Welsh goblins at bay so your baby can’t be stolen away.

An utterly beguiling collection of stories by an author who weaves spells with language around the lives of ordinary people.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Love Across a Broken Map by The Whole Kahani, Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie 

Avoid If You Dislike: Spinning poetry out of ordinary lives.

Perfect Accompaniment: Each story has a flavour of its own – from Bara Brith to Nasi Lemak

Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction

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