Nalini Jones: “Tiger” from One Story, #150 5/26/2011

…Essie found she could not express the full sweep of her thoughts. Each memory had eight or ten more at its back – a dozen, a hundred – too many to record so that anyone would understand how quickly and powerfully they came upon her. She could write and write, letters enough to span the globe; she imagined the lines of longitude and latitude in her own handwriting, floating gently over green and blue. And still it would not be enough to record the longings of even a single moment. Everything she hoped for was connected to everything she remembered and everything she had lost – a web spreading in all directions. Words moved in single file.

Passages like this one make me want to jump up and down and yell, “YES! That’s it exactly!” I, too, try to include the entire web of associations in writing, which is why I’m always digressing.

But I digress.

I enjoyed this story of Essie, an Indian Catholic matriarch (her husband Francis has a very limited role here) whose daughter Marian, now married to an American and with children of her own, is concluding a visit. Just before they return to the States, two things happen: the children find a stray mother cat and two kittens, and Essie finds a lump in her breast. Essie does not want the cats anywhere near her house (or near the children, for that matter), but kids have a way of collecting strays. At one heartbreaking point I realized Essie is willing to have cancer to keep her daughter close to her. I understand that. I was once willing to have a routine test come back positive so I could get out of a job I hated. My boss was very hurt when I told him that. But I digress again. I told you.

This is the heart of the story: Essie’s deep wish for her daughter’s presence and concern and love, a mother who can’t let go, to the point of obsession. It seems a bit extreme to me, and I’m left wondering why, though she has a husband and two sons, though Marian has lived in the States for some time now, this separation is so difficult for her to accept. And I wonder if there’s something wrong with me that it seems so extreme. But imagine children who are desperately attached to stray kittens they’ve just found but don’t turn a hair at leaving Grandma a half a world behind; now imagine how Grandma might feel about that. This feels absolutely true: it’s exactly how kids would react. Somehow they always assume Grandma will be there, but the cats are ephemeral. But it has to sting. Motherhood has many angles in this piece.

It’s an engrossing story with a lot of wonderful details, including a charming story line about Gopi, the coconut harvester whose anticipated and delayed arrival frames the story. I have to admit I’m not crazy about the aesthetic of the prose itself, though it doesn’t get to the point where I have trouble reading. It’s just not a style I particularly like, though I find it appropriate for the story and setting.

I was a bit confused about the mention, in her One Story Q&A, of her story collection about this family set in this same Catholic enclave of Bombay. What You Call Winter was published in 2007; at first I got the impression the story was from the collection, which would not make sense (One Story would not print an already published story from four years ago), and then on rereading the interview, realized the story was left out of the collection (then resurrected and rewritten for One Story) because it was overrun with cats: ” The cats were everywhere. It was all about the cats. The editor of my story collection gently suggested that the world might not need a story in which the cats are more memorable than the people.… The cats twined through everything. It was all so discouraging that I introduced a dog into the novel to bark fiercely at any cat intruders. Then an editor at One Story made a brilliant suggestion.” I wish I knew what the suggestion was. And I’m afraid to admit this – I wish I could read the original story, too; I might like a story overrun with cats. But mostly this points out the value of One Story Q&A’s: they actually inform the reader and add to the enjoyment of the stories.

I’ve ordered the collection because I’m interested in this family, in this community, and I’d like to read more about them. My “To Be Read” shelf is sagging badly, but there’s always room for one more book, right? ADDENDUM: My comments on What You Call Winter here.

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10 responses to “Nalini Jones: “Tiger” from One Story, #150 5/26/2011

  1. Hi Karen! I just subscribed to One Story, and this is the first story I received. I haven’t read it yet, so that means I’ll read your review soon. I hope all is well.

    STAN

    • Hi Stan – I love One Story, it’s the first litmag I’ve subscribed to for more than one year (usually I rotate, since I can’t afford to subscribe to everything after all). I find the format very convenient. And while not every story is, as Zin calls it, jump-up-and-down good, I don’t think there’s been a real clunker in almost two years now. Did you see I got a surprise visit from Smith Henderson (“Number Stations”, May 2010)? That was exciting!

      I look forward to hearing your reactions to “Tiger” and future stories. I think there are maybe five or six of us One Story regulars now.

    • Here we go – Stan, speaking of One Story regulars, Short Story Slore (listed on my Cool Sites page) is one of them.

      I’m glad you saw that passage as well, it leapt off the page for me.

      Alas, the bookstore just cancelled my order for her story collection What You Call Winter for some unspecified reason – maybe one $1 book wasn’t worth it (in which case they should specify a minimum order), or their inventory was mistaken and they couldn’t find it. So I’ll have to order it from somewhere else.

  2. Karen wrote:

    But imagine children who are desperately attached to stray kittens they’ve just found but don’t turn a hair at leaving Grandma a half a world behind; now imagine how Grandma might feel about that.

    This is a great point. I hadn’t thought of that. Having taken the time to read the story yesterday, I was struck more by Essie’s loneliness, her strong drive to connect with her daughter. As the Q&A mentioned, she’s a typical passive agressive mother, one well-drawn IMO.

    I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on with Essie’s husband, who reaches out to her at one point, only to have her dismiss him. Does he go to his club because she drives him away? Or does he really not care too much, having reached out only because he felt cornered, like one of the cats, one day?

    This story, Tiger, culminates an interesting string of tiger stories released this year and on the periphery of my radar. First it was Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, then (of course) The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, and The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant, among others. Strange, because the Year of the Tiger was 2010, not this year. Is the publishing world a year behind? :-)

    STAN

    • Hah, I like that about the Year of the Tiger. The celestial spheres don’t wait for publishers. Tea Obreht sold The Tiger’s Wife in 2008, it was released in March 2011, so anyone writing sheep books, you better get moving!

      I noticed the distance between Essie and her husband, just chalked it up to the setting. A gender thing: men hang out with men, women with women. Similar to, why is the story set in India? Because it is. Maybe I’m just too accepting of some things, don’t question them. I’d associated Essie’s loneliness for Marian with female bonding, so I guess I just figured that’s how it was for this community. The mother is exquisitely drawn – she doesn’t make up a lump, it really is there; when the daughter suggests they get an appointment right away, Essie protests, but she does it; she lies about not having heard from the doctor, but she doesn’t go so far as to lie about the diagnosis. She goes just far enough to indicate desperate longing, but not so far that she isn’t sympathetic. It’s a very fine line, and it’s perfectly walked.

  3. Pingback: One Story #150: ‘Tiger’ by Nalini Jones | Stanley Dankoski

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