‘Aerogrammes,’ by Washington’s Tania James: Crisp short stories on kinship

June 8, 2012

Tania James’s new collection, “Aerogrammes,” opens with a fantastical story of two brothers — a lion and a panther — who travel from India for a wrestling championship in London, “a city where athletes are actors, where the ring is a stage.” They arrive to much fanfare but are saddened to learn that might doesn’t necessarily conquer all in the ring. “Wrestlers are paid to take a fall once in a while, to pounce and pound and growl on cue,” James writes. The brothers go on to have the strength of their bodies, and of their filial bonds, tested. But whatever happens in the ring, this story and all the others emerge victorious.

An agile wrestler of words herself, James is an Indian American writer who lives in Washington. Her collection’s nine stories crisscross in and out of reality, zigzagging from a girl who forms a siblinglike bond with a chimpanzee to a woman who marries a ghost. But throughout, the constant is James’s ability to render strong characters and tender relationships. Some are real and some are clearly imagined, but they all come to feel authentic and deftly drawn.

For example, “What to Do With Henry” tells the story of Pearl, a woman who “couldn’t see how children fit into the frozen dinner of her marriage” and ends up assembling a family that’s anything but ordinary. When she discovers that her husband has had a child with a woman while off doing research in Africa, she leaves Ohio to find the girl, Neneh, in Sierra Leone. Pearl adopts Neneh and takes her back to the States, along with a chimpanzee, Henry, who comes to be more of a child than a pet. He blows kisses to the mailwoman, eagerly awaits Neneh’s return from school each day and even acts as if he can feel her pain. “He was her brother. . . . A brother who stole the last grape Popsicle before she’d had even one, but at the very least, if she complained, he would break off a melty half and hold it out to her on his palm.”

But that sibling synchronicity doesn’t last forever. Pearl is forced to donate Henry to a zoo, where he struggles to adapt. Neneh concludes that “by rescuing him, they had ruined him” and wonders whether Pearl feels similarly for having “rescued” Neneh.

It’s at moments like these — and several others throughout the collection — in which I wished James hadn’t rescued the reader from possibly missing a story’s moral or emotional climax. But that’s a small objection in an otherwise nimble collection.


’Aerogrammes: and Other Stories' by Tania James (Knopf)

Bonos is an editor in the Outlook section.

AEROGRAMMES

and Other Stories

By Tania James

Knopf. 192 pp. $24

Lisa Bonos is an assistant editor for Outlook.
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