Susmita Bhattacharya Table Manners
ISBN 9780995634466, £10
These stories are rich in detail and nuance. Distilling their plots only gives a vague idea of the journeys readers take. They show that, despite varied locations, there are universal aspects to the human condition and a wry humour surfaces, lending each story a poignancy.
Each story is about far more than its basic plots. Some of those plots can be summarised. In India a housekeeper observes two marriages, condemning one but failing to see abuse in the second. In Singapore, a wife’s me-time is interrupted by her husband asking her to attend a business dinner and she finds a way to restore the equilibrium. A parrot mimics a late husband’s voice. A second wife in Cardiff learns to tend her garden. A husband in Wales writes letters to the wife he plans to bring to the UK against the background of the London bombings in 2005. An Indian widow fantasises about the newly-wed husband in a neighbouring house to the extent of sympathising with him when his wife fails to buy rum or gets the wrong mixer drink. A grandmother grieves a lost baby when her granddaughter faces a decision about an unintended pregnancy. A young Indian woman scratches her and her love’s initials on a tile in the Taj Mahal, however, when her parents refuse permission to marry, she stays in India and he moves to England not long before the Brexit referendum. An Indian man takes his British wife and daughter to meet his parents and extended family. A couple with a baby, used to home comforts, try a camping holiday. A daughter deals with the effects of a sibling’s cot death on their parents. A girl finds an astonishing secret hidden in her late grandmother’s gloves which were found tucked under bedding.
In the title story, a British widower reduced to microwaved meals wolfed down in seconds find himself invited to a meal with a Chinese grandmother who does not speak English. She invites him after he attempts to rescue the family’s cat. Both talk, through habit, but understanding comes from the use of food to heal and nourish and the small transactions of giving and receiving food.
The characters feel fully rounded and dialogue throughout feels natural. Dialogue isn’t the only means of communication between characters and to readers. Readers are invited to engage with each story, consider the situation and actions of characters. Themes and issues are explored organically through the story and don’t feel like plot devices or a trick to provoke a specific response in the reader. Story details guide and build images for the reader to complete. The craft in shaping and creating believable worlds and situations is worn lightly. Serious issues of grief, loss, poverty or injustice are lightened by a dry humour so the reader doesn’t feel the situation is beyond rescue.
A motif throughout the stories is the concept of home and family. Some characters remain at home, others move countries, others have mixed race heritage; all have to consider what sustains and nurtures them. Some families allow members to choose their partners while others face arranged, but not forced, marriages. Neither approach is favoured and there are some long term loves amongst the unhappy and abused. The success in “Table Manners” is Susmita Bhattacharya’s compassion in humanising characters, whatever their nationality or religion, and poignantly crafted stories.