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What You Call Winter
Nalini Jones ’93
By Nalini Jones ’93.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 256 pp. $22.95 hardcover.
Reviewed by Jennifer Acker ’00
This debut collection of nine short stories displays clear-eyed, inventive prose and an enchanting mix of characters. With a delicate but firm hand, Nalini Jones ’93 explores the intricacies of childhood, marriage and aging in a Bombay Catholic community, as its members lead new lives in America and make return visits home. By interweaving tales of friends, siblings and neighbors at various stages in their lives and evoking wonderfully rich sensory environments, Jones fully immerses the reader in the literarily untouched Catholic India, and puts a new spin on life in America.
Jones’s descriptions call attention not to themselves but to the minds and surroundings of her characters. In “Home for a Short Time,” Toby is a middle-aged bachelor surprised to find himself so. Upon the return visits of both a friend and a woman to whom he was once engaged, he goes to an evening party. “Toby rocked his chair back on two legs and the garden tilted,” Jones writes. “Black, with streaks of green where the torches spilled light against foliage. He watched swirls of cigarette smoke, lacy, slow-turning.” In “Half the Story,” Marian, who came to the United States for graduate school, married an American and now finds herself living in Cincinnati, thinks, “Everything was wide in the Midwest, even in the suburbs. The yards, winter-yellow, and the smooth-paved roads. The sedans and station wagons. The flattened vowels and broad-backed casseroles. Only the wind had a narrow edge.”
Particularly succinct and well-layered in this collection are the descriptions of marriages young and old. In “The Crow and the Monkey,” a bitter marriage on the brink of collapse is scrolled into the margins of a story told from the point of view of 6-year-old nephew Jude (Marian’s younger brother). Jude has a cough on New Year’s Eve and is forced to nap rather than join his Uncle Peter and cousins in making “the old man,” a straw figure to be burned at midnight. When Jude finally sneaks out, everyone has left but his crazy Aunty Freddy, who is Peter’s wife. Jude looks on while Freddy mutters unhappily and paints the straw man’s face; when Marian fetches him, Freddy warns her, “Stay far from your uncle. He has an eye for all the pretty girls.” That night Jude plays games and sits beside his uncle at he piano, and they sing. “But soon Jude could hear Aunty Freddy’s voice above ll others, clear and strong, and in the end it was only she and Uncle Peter singing together, for that song and then one more.” Jude sees his aunt has tears in her eyes, though the songs are not sad. When the old man is brought out to be burned, Jude shouts that the old man has the face of Uncle Peter.
The weakest story is the opener, a coming-of-age tale of 10-year-old Marian. The reader identifies with the fears and hopes of a girl who wants to be a grownup but still feels strict parental pressure, but the ending is abrupt and unsatisfying. Jones handles senescence with far more refinement and grace. In “The Bold, The Beautiful,” for example, émigré Colleen returns to India for a visit and finds that her mother “had gone spongy, like something left too long to soak. Her hands reminded Colleen of overripe fruit.” Colleen’s mother faces cataract surgery she has put off too long and remains stubborn in holding on to
Brought into clearest focus in these stories are the women—the network of mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters struggling with forces unique yet universal. These women fight familial and societal expectations. They balance the urgency to tell all with the safety of secrets. The male protagonists, while precisely drawn, lack innovation in their story lines. They make do with tried tales of lost love and mourning of long-gone fathers. The elegance of the prose and Jones’s unique voice carry the reader over these pitfalls, however, and make one eager for more from this new talent.
Acker is a writer based in Amherst, Mass.