Not a single story in this collection disappoints. The writing is simple and uncluttered, unlike the lives of some of Thapa's characters and in contrast to the changes Nepal has experienced in recent years. What appealed most to me was Thapa's ability to permit me, the reader, to slip into the room unobserved, to listen to the conversations of her characters, to get in their head so to speak.
A recurring theme in some of the stories seems to be that of a journey, not always in the literal sense, which often doesn't turn out as planned, Original intentions are questioned, destinations and goals change, what once seemed right, or desirable, in the end wasn't what the characters wanted, or ended up with at all. An example is the title story Tilled Earth in which a woman goes to study in the US with the ultimate goal of being with the man she loves, someone she couldn't be with in Nepal because of their families. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, she comes into her own and begins to question whether she still wants what seemed to be a given when she left Nepal. In The European Fling it's almost amusing to watch Sharada and Matt, who make good on a college plan to have a fling some day, go from "Maybe we'll fall in love" to two people stuck with each other for two weeks, eventually parting with a "Take it easy" and a "Bye." In Love Marriage a husband reviews with his wife all that transpired before they married, what he went through with his family, the arranged introductions that didn't work out, the decision to marry someone of another caste and status -- and now, he says to his wife,
"You say it's a mistake ... Being married to me is your punishment. But we gave up our families, friends, society, tradition, to forge a modern new life, a life based on love. There's no way to correct a mistake so big."
In other stories, one gets a sense of 'overload' for some living in Nepal -- so much is happening, politically, socially, culturally. In Soar a woman pours herself a drink while nursing a hangover, leafs through vacation brochures, marvels at the resilience of Nepali women, all the while trying to remember who she was supposed to call and about what,
"Was it a gender specialist for next week's women's rights seminar? About trafficking, rape, child prostitution, domestic abuse, the lack of basic rights for Nepali women?"
By far, the micro-story The Newly Appointed Chemistry Professor with fewer than 200 words, packs the most powerful punch, in my opinion. The reader follows a female professor as she makes her way through a campus, hiding behind men. One can't help but wonder why she is on edge -- is it the new job or that she doesn't know anyone? As in the other stories, Thapa transported me to that campus so that I felt like I was following this woman as she followed the others nervously. It would be unfair to give away the ending but suffice to say, when I learned the reason for the professor's anxiety, I wish I hadn't 'gone there.' But, I did and that's exactly what Thapa, I think, intended.
In contrast, An Eldest Son Thinks of Home the micro-story on the page opposite of the one just mentioned, is almost sweet. A homesick man in the US seems to be talking (in his mind) to his family, describing what he's seen, where he lives -- just as perhaps so many immigrants before him have done. I was struck by the deliberate use of the adjective "Eldest" in the title. Another author may have found it sufficient to omit it, but her choice made me think, she gets it, as I looked at the title again, after reading the story, culturally, socially, there is a difference, between a son and an eldest son.
Thapa's writing style is truly unique ...; the publishers used the word 'compressed.' That it is, but the narrative is also punctuated with vocabulary or language lessons, or passages from government reports, almost in staccato fashion-detached, separated, distinct, with pauses, giving the reader (and characters) time to think, absorb, reflect.
Tilled Earth is a quiet, thoughtful collection of stories; nothing dramatic or melodramatic, but intense nonetheless.
Book Description: Startlingly original and closely observed stories that capture the dynamism and diversity of Nepali society in a time of great flux. In Tilled Earth several compressed, poetic and deeply evocative micro-stories offer fleeting glimpses of small, private dramas of people caught midlife: an elderly woodworker loses his way in a modern Kathmandu neighbourhood; a homesick expatriate nurses a hangover; a clerk at the Ministry of Home Affairs learns to play Solitaire on the computer; a young man is drawn to politics against his better judgement; a child steals her classmate’s book... The longer stories in the collection, too, span a wide course, taking subjects from rural and urban Nepal as well as from the Nepali diaspora abroad. In "Tilled Earth" a young woman goes to Seattle as a student, and finds herself becoming an illegal alien. "Love Marriage" is an inner narration by a young man who—defying family pressure—falls in love with a woman of the wrong caste. In "The Buddha in the Earth-Touching Posture", a retired secretary visits the Buddha's birthplace, Lumbini, only to find his deepest insecurities exposed.
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