Pairs Well With:
Ginjinha (Ginja), a Portuguese berry liqueur. The characters in this story collection are not big drinkers. Alcohol does, however, play a crucial if understated role in the story “Heitor,” set in 16th-century Portugal. Although Ginjinha probably wasn’t invented and popularized until several hundred years later, those characters would have treasured it and put it to good strategic use.
Genre: Fiction/Short Stories
Author: Chaya Bhuvaneswar
Rating: 5 out of 5 shots
It would be a challenge to demonstrate whether the magical realist stories of White Dancing Elephants are part of the same coherent fictional world. They have different settings (typically India, England, or the East Coast of the United States), and they span different eras. Nonetheless, they have common themes. Many have an intense focus on pregnancy—especially pregnancies that are illicit, fraught with danger, sadly lost, or merely wistfully imagined—and hoped-for children as seductive ghosts who lure women and men to their fates. The power of this theme, combined with author Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s glittering sentences, led me to read the collection several times from beginning to end.
Some stories are on the theme of childlessness. The first story, from which the book takes its title, is in the voice of a woman speaking to her small, miscarried embryo (“only enough blood for me to know”), an ephemeral being she generously imagines would have grown into a man who one day would have had a son of his own. “The Life You Save Isn’t Your Own” is about a fortysomething art collector, a divorcee who feels sadness in the solitary life she’s made for herself. “Heitor” is about Indian slaves in Portugal five hundred years ago facing life-and-death choices. “Adristakama” is about a young woman who feels she must go to India to accept an arranged marriage rather than stay with her girlfriend in New York City. “Asha in Allston” is about a sexbot.
“A Shaker Chair” and “Orange Popsicles,” set in the United States, are about blackmail. Each features an Indian woman who is either a perpetrator or a victim. These stories, in particular, cause me to reflect on the words Dr. Bhuvaneswar chose as an epigraph: “the exact / and tribal, intimate revenge” (from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment”). There is also “Talinda,” in which the narrator, recognizing herself as “this wretched person…sleeping with her best friend’s husband,” learns that the thirty-something woman she has wronged has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. This narrator’s voice is fierce and imperious in its self-justification and, even as she indicts herself, has a comic inadequacy of empathy.
“The Orphan Handler,” set in India, is about girls who have “the powers to change into wild creatures of various kinds…eagles or panthers or wild mares.” This is a gloriously magical setup, and I am sorry only that this tale was so brief. “I am unique, alive, organism, the girls cry out to each other in their regional languages, or, more often, telepathically,” Bhuvaneswar writes. The narrator asks one of these orphans: “What was it like when you discovered you could roar?”
These nine stories (half of the seventeen in this collection) are especially memorable for me, and yet they remain enigmas, as if they were my own memories or dreams in which I feel the urge to gather the loose threads at the end. I recommend this book to people who like psychological stories and who tolerate brushstrokes of the weird and fantastic.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar. White Dancing Elephants. Dzanc Books, 2018.
About The Reviewer
Tucker Lieberman is the author of the nonfiction books Ten Past Noon, Bad Fire, and Painting Dragons. His short fiction is in Mad Scientist’s I Didn’t Break the Lamp and Elly Blue’s forthcoming Trans-Galactic Bike Ride.
Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, he lives in Bogotá, Colombia. You can check more of what Tucker is up to by going to www.tuckerlieberman.com or following him on Twitter @tuckerlieberman