Contemporary Chinese literature can sometimes be a bit of a struggle, whether due to heavy doses of politics or surrealism; the subject might be obscure or the author self-consciously literary. However worthy these works may be, it comes as something of a relief, then, that Su Tong—of Raise the Red Lantern fame—stuck to good, old-fashioned storytelling in Petulia’s Rouge Tin, a novella just out as a Penguin Special.

Although “Subjunctive Moods” is the name of the second of the stories in CG Menon’s debut collection, it is apt for the entire collection. In grammar (albeit less so and increasingly rarely in English), the subjunctive is used when a condition of uncertainty or conditionality prevails; “if I were the author,” for example, “I might have chosen just this title.” Even a slight perturbation in reality can result in a different verb conjugation or, as it is called, “mood”. Most of Menon’s protagonists are none “too steady on their feet”, as two of them say of themselves, whether literally or as an existential condition: if lives could be conjugated, these would be in the subjunctive.