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.
This is an accomplished and satisfying collection. Menon, born in Australia of South Asian extraction by way, it seems, of Malaysia (her given name of Catherine is, perhaps subjunctively, reduced to initials), crosses cultural and geographical boundaries with seamless ease. A detour or two to someplace like Australia aside, the stories are more or less evenly divided between a mostly Indian Malaysia and a musty England; she seems equally at home in either. The characters are divided up as well, although some have crossed borders, while other ethnicities—Russian exchange students or Cantonese-speaking Malaysians—make appearances.
Menon has won a clutch of prizes along the way to this first book; it is not hard to see why. She can conjure up a scene in just a phrase, whether Malaysia:
The monsoon is coming, and the water will soon be ankle-deep and silted up with rotting fruit
… or Northumberland:
The Farne Islands are jagged lumps of blackness against a murky sea and there’s a tang in the air and a taste of devils on my tongue.
And Menon captures all of multiracial Malaysia in a couple of sentences.
… she steps toe-heel out of her shoes on the shallow steps of the Wong’s verandah. A stone lion guards the door, and I stroke its face, already blurred from years of our hugs. The hall behind it smells of silence, of lilies and rosewater and cool polished wood, and Peony disappears down it like a breath against the wind. Next door, my own quiet house reeks of coconut oil and turmeric. Such a Tamil smell, Mrs Wong said once when she thought we were upstairs …
As well as middle England:
It was the hotel dining room, full of dusty tables and cracked teacups. It was the bored waitress… It was their last evening and there was an end-of-things look about the hotel, with greenery dimming the windows and blurring the sepia photographs on the wall.
But Menon’s talent is best illustrated when she takes England, Malaysia and India and gives them a mix, as in the book’s virtuoso lead paragraph:
“Excited, Shalini?” Dilip shifts up a gear and all the ghosts crowded into the back seat rock together and nod their invisible heads. Not, of course, that they’re truly ghosts. Miss Working-Late, Miss Tennis-Partner, Miss She’s-Just-A-Friend-My-God-Shalini-Give-It-A-Rest—they’re all very much alive and fleshy, going home right now on the Ampang Line and crossing their legs at retired businessmen. But somehow, they’re here too. Long hair drips from their perfect skulls and they blow fanged kisses to me in the rearview mirror. Not ghosts, then—not with those sharpened teeth—but pontianaks. I’ve conjured up a carful of women bent on revenge.
Menon, thank goodness, doesn’t disrupt the story-telling by explaining what a pontianak is, or kueh lapis or padang.
There is something old-fashionably comfortable in Menon’s writing. Even when set in a jackfruit blossom-bedecked Malaysian courtyard, they resemble country watercolors rather than anything harder-edged or avant-garde. It’s partly the vocabulary—the Malaysian Wongs have their television in the “drawing-room”—partly the crisp syntax and partly her drawing the stories from the banal: school plays, troubled marriages or three-generation families. Judy Dench and Maggie Smith might play the two elderly women sitting in the faded hotel in Yorkshire. Even the odd ghost or two serve as reminders of stories past.
But in them all, the protagonist has somewhat out of sync with her (and it is usually, but not always, her) situation: hoping that that things aren’t quite the way they seem, or are. “If life were different …”, but it isn’t.