Lingering Tide and Other Stories
by Latha Viswanathan
Toronto, ON: TSAR, 2012
155 pp, $20.95
The twelve stories in Lingering Tide and Other Stories by Latha Viswanathan have all been published in various literary magazines, but hunting down these publications can be a challenge, so it’s a pleasure to have them collected in one volume. Viswanathan has a consistently delicate touch with her characters, managing to show their flaws with understanding and sympathy.
The title story, “Lingering Tides,” opens the collection. Surya’s wife, Uma, dies after forty-five years of marriage, and Surya decides to take her ashes home to India. The story is deceptively slight. Little happens except that Viswanathan delves into the challenges of culture clashes. Surya’s son lives in New Jersey and his daughter in Vancouver. They enjoy comfortable lives, and Surya feels unable to connect with his grandchildren: “For the past few years, he’d watched the grandchildren. They came home from school it seemed only to go out. They were busy miniature adults. They had so many illusions to break. What could he, an old man from another country, offer in the way of enlightenment when it came to ice hockey, baseball, and track?” This story sets the tone for the collection—a reflective and sensitive examination of people caught between ways of life.
The lives of Indian women are often circumscribed by convention in Viswanathan’s work. In “Brittle,” a young girl makes friends with Ammini, an old woman who is married when she is nine years old. Ammini loses both her childhood and any chance at a normal adult life when her father-in-law dies and the rest of the family gangs up on her, even denying her proper food. The narrator tries to understand her elderly friend’s life, but both of them are controlled by men who in turn are controlled by patterns of behaviour established over years.
Struggle is ingrained in these stories, emotional and physical. In “Bat Soup,” a family faces poverty in Cambodia. The mother is pregnant, the father is in jail, and one of the daughters, Sitha, has been wounded by a land mine. She uses a crutch and is confused when she meets a woman with two legs and a crutch. But the woman’s crutch is a tripod, and she’s taking pictures at Angkor Wat. The woman gives the girl Toblerone, and at the end of the story, the girl throws her bat soup away and imagines the next day when she would “press a milky triangle to a secret pocket of her mouth. Sucking slowly, all warm and syrupy, she’d forget everybody, making chocolate soup all by herself.” Sitha’s family is in dire straits, and there’s little joy in the girl’s life.
Viswanathan uses sensory detail exquisitely to transport readers to various settings. In “Travelling,” a couple move to the Philippines for a year for the husband’s job. Pauline tries to cope with her new home as she wonders about her husband and how well they know each other. Everything is destabilizing. At a temple, her husband Ray has a snake wrapped around his neck while Pauline’s response to the interior of the temple and the incense is much less relaxed: “The movement of the smoke, curls thinning out, gave the impression of moving snakes, slithering darkness rushing to feet. It was like vertigo, the ground flying up to your head on the twelfth floor, pulling you down. You fell, a stillborn scream in your mouth, the plunge your only awareness for the moment.”
These stories have a variety of characters and settings, but each one examines problems in culture with quiet, steady reflection. The conclusions tend to be open-ended, leaving the reader to imagine how the individuals carry on. Lingering Tide and Other Stories pushes readers to consider the power of culture from several angles. And Viswanathan reveals her troubled characters while consistently showing great respect for them.
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