Aerogrammes seeks out the familiar within the strange
AEROGRAMMES AND OTHER STORIES. By Tania James. Knopf. 180 pages. $24.
Tania James, the first-generation American child of Kerala, India, immigrants, writes glowing little stories, often about transplanted people or families broken by distance.
A typical James story begins with an exotic premise: two strong men from Lahore arrive in London to challenge all comers; a 60-year-old American woman travels to Sierra Leone, where she adopts a child and a chimpanzee.
In the telling, James seeks out the familiar within her strange scenarios, often focusing on universal family dilemmas. In story after story, James confirms that family is forever and that love is always difficult but never misplaced.
“Aerogrammes” opens with its strongest stories, “Lion and Panther in London” and “What to Do With Henry.” Lion and Panther are two brothers from Lahore, Gama and Imam, who are brought to London in 1910 as “India’s Catch-as-Catch-Can Champions, Genuine Challengers of the Universe.”
A slick promoter and a dirty, exploitive business are part of the story, but the real center of “Lion and Panther” is the overt love and covert rivalry between the brothers.
“What to Do With Henry” features a pair of siblings, one human, the other a chimp. In Africa to retrieve a child fathered by her husband, Pearl Groves has the sense that she’s “destroying her old life blow by blow and building a new one out of new names.”
Henry the chimp is one of the new names, a humanized symbol of convertibility. He eats at the dinner table and loves simple things: Dole fruit cups, PBS nature programs and blondes. Henry and his African sister both wind up sharing the “twinned experience” of aloneness — a possibility that haunts many of Tania James’ interesting stories.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes, an instructor of English at the College of Charleston