Tuesday, September 20, 2011

REVIEW: Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta

Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta. Published 2011 by Harper Perennial. Literary Fiction. Short stories.

I got Quarantine a while back and in an effort to catch up on my short story reading (and some review obligations) I've taken to reading a short story every day that I work on my own writing. Doing so has been very useful in getting me back into the habit of reading short stories and it was nice to start with this enjoyable collection.

Granted, the subject matter of Quarantine is not exactly light. Rahul Mehta writes with grace and suppleness about the lives and conflicts of various Indian-American, gay male characters both in the United States and India. One story is about a man on vacation in India with his boyfriend and their adventures with another young man who claims to be an artist and wants to sell them his work. In another story, a young man tries to help his grandmother qualify for U.S. citizenship. In another, a man takes his boyfriend home to West Virginia to meet his family, including an abrasive grandfather and put-upon mother. Each story represents a slightly different niche in the Indian-American immigrant and gay experience.

I enjoyed most of the stories, but I didn't love them. Sometimes the characters seemed a little bland or indistinct; it wasn't always easy to tell what distinguished one narrator from another apart from geographic movements or particular relationship status. A theme throughout the collection is deception- how the characters lie to each other and to themselves. In "What We Mean" a young man recounts a failed relationship and the lies that are left behind:
The letter is all lies, especially the last part. If it were true, if it isn't me, then why didn't he leave the note somewhere else: on the kitchen counter, where the muffins should be, or taped to the screen of the television set, the one we bought when Sangeeta didn't give us hers? Why did he leave it in the bathroom for me to read and have nothing to look at except myself in the mirror? Why has he left me alone?
The reason to read this collection is to get to the last, luminous story, "A Better Life," about a young man named Sanj from a Virginia town. He's well-off; his best friend from high school, Sylvie, hoped her beauty would take her to New York and a modeling career. Now, she's older and living in sweatpants, and her dreams are just dreams. Sanj made the move to New York but he hasn't amounted to much, either, but he can't admit it. Their friendship is this delicate thing fraught with tension and disappointment, two people who have let themselves down and can face neither each other nor others in their life. It's enough to make me want to read Mehta's debut novel, which will be published by Harper in 2014. In the mean time, this collection is well worth checking out.

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from HarperCollins.