‘A Temporary Matter’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

A Temporary Matter by Jhumpa Lahiri, 1998

The magic trick:

Capturing a particular feeling of helplessness by focusing most of the third-person narration on the husband’s point of view

Absolutely stunning story here – the opening cut from Lahiri’s renowned Interpreter Of Maladies collection. It reminds me of Cheever in the way that it effortlessly introduces you right to the core of who these characters are. I’m hard pressed to think of a Cheever story, though, with this much heart or this much pure hurt.

Crucially, the third-person narration leans on the perspective of Shukumar, the husband. It’s not necessarily his story. It’s the story of a marriage, and it’s the story of that married couple’s loss.

But putting us mainly in his point of view does two things simultaneously that are critical to the story’s success:

One, it of course gives us a clear window into the way he’s processing the death of their baby. And two – and this really is the key – the limitation of the reader to his perspective allows us to feel his utter helplessness. He can’t understand his wife – how or what she’s thinking and feeling. They’ve gone through this tragedy together and yet they haven’t. She is a mystery to him. And, the way the story is written keeps her a mystery to us as well.

And that’s quite a trick on Lahiri’s part.

The selection:

Shukumar returned to the kitchen and began to open drawers. He tried to locate a candle among the scissors, the eggbeaters and whisks, the mortar and pestle she’d bought in a bazaar in Calcutta, and used to pound garlic cloves and cardamom pods, back when she used to cook. He found a flashlight, but no batteries, and a half-empty box of birthday candles. Shoba had thrown him a surprise birthday party last May. One hundred and twenty people had crammed into the house – all the friends and the friends of friends they now systematically avoided. Bottles of vinho verde had nested in a bed of ice in the bathtub. Shoba was in her fifth month, drinking ginger ale from a martini glass. She had made a vanilla cream cake with custard and spun sugar. All night she kept Shukumar’s long fingers linked with hers as they walked among the guests at the party.

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