Homesick, winner of the 2009 Impress Prize For New Writers, is that hybrid and unsettling beast: a linked story collection. Not quite a novel, not simply an uncomplicated assortment of tales, the linked collection tries to straddle the gap; in fact, Fernando’s agent describes the book as a ‘composite novel’ – a coy tag that, I think, is really a marketing ploy designed to trick the ‘I don’t read short fiction’ folk into buying a not-quite-a-novel, but that doesn’t really fool anyone at all. Now, while (as is probably obvious) I don’t think these efforts always work, credit where it’s due: this one’s a success. Homesick is a melancholy, touching, diverse set of stories, all of them revolving around a particular Sri Lankan community in London. The characters are linked by family, marriage and neighbourhood, but their stories take place across generations, decades and continents. Fernando introduces a wide cast and sets them afloat, and the reader gets to watch as their various lives unfold and implode. The connections enhance the stories, sure – we get the layers of relationships and added insight that accumulation brings – but almost every one of them could stand alone without suffering, which is, after all, what you’re looking for in a short story.
There’s a loose chronological progression here, which means you wouldn’t necessarily want to read Homesick out of order; we begin with the eponymous “Homesick”, an ensemble piece about a party at the home of Victor and Nandini and their teenage children, Rohan, Preethi and Gehan, which introduces the main players and themes of the stories to follow. I caught myself flicking back to this index piece to orient myself at times. I didn’t always find it easy to join the dots and work out how X knew Y in a given tale, but I counted that as a strength; Fernando wasn’t carving too small a niche for her protagonists, and their stories, like real life, often spun far from their origins. Anyway, “Homesick” sets the tone: emigrant politics, national identity, marital love and strife, teenage sexual drama, adult sexual (and gender) politics, and all told with an eye to banter and fast dialogue and simple, elegant description. After that, the book swoops back and forth through time, but grounds itself in the Preethi stories, which run from that character’s childhood as far as her middle age. Of that set, I particularly liked “Sophocles’ Chorus” (teen love and heartbreak: I’m an absolute sucker for that) and “At The Barn Dance”, a quietly unsettling story of unease in a marriage and cultural mismatch. One of the later ones, “Meta General” was a gut-punching sad case about war and loss: not a pick-me-up for the casual reader, so be warned.
Elsewhere, I liked “Test”, where a divorced father takes his son to a cricket game and wonders how to deal with his, the father’s, long-repressed homosexuality. Again on the sad side, “The Flourescent Jacket” was grim story about paedophilia, prejudice and family shame: excellent stuff. And I think one of my favourites in the book was ‘Nil’s Wedding’, in which a girl has doubts on her wedding morning, while her whole family are assembled, waiting to see her married. It’s straightforward, a familiar theme, but so quietly miserable and true that it makes you want to sob. The unwanted photographer, the sale sticker on the sole of Nil’s shoe, her fiance’s ‘synthetic laughter’ – the detail is perfect, the emotions pitched just right.
Now, that’s not to say that I liked everything. There’s a pair of stories about a kid called Mumtaz (“Mumtaz Chaplin” and “The Terrorist’s Foster Grandmother”), the second of which didn’t sit so well with me. Although the first is great – the dumb, traumatized boy; the murdered mother – the second felt too self-consciously political (Muslim characters, best to include 7/7), and the coincidental meeting that it hinges upon (no spoilers!) was a little too large for me to swallow. Mumtaz also makes a final appearance at the very end, in “At The Funeral”, a story that was far too neatly a mirror of “Homesick”: that degree of rounding-off the book gives it a certain coherence, undoubtedly, but it felt just a little artificial to me, and I think the book would have been stronger had it been left out.
Any Cop? Yes. There’s barely a false note here. Fernando’s already been noticed in several prestigious short story competitions, and I expect we’ll be hearing much more from her. One to watch.