Temporary Lives
 by Ramola D

University of Massachusetts Press
2009, hardback
First collection

Awards: 2008 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction; Finalist, 2010 Virginia Literary Awards; Finalist, 2004 University of Nebraska Book Series Awards

Ramola D was born in Madras, trained as a journalist and moved to America to study creative writing. Currently living in Virginia, she teaches creative writing part-time at The George Washington University and The Writer's Center, Bethesda.  Her previous collection of poetry Invisible Season, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing Prize.

Read an interview with Ramola D

"My grandfather Roderick is fastened by one lung to the world."

Reviewed by Julia Bohanna

Now here is a peculiar thing. These stories are set in India, but despite the obvious contradictions with heat and setting, the tales of these often tragic narrators kept drawing me back to certain Russian authors, namely Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov in particular had a huge empathy for his creations and Ramola D is similarly tender with hers, forensically descriptive with all aspects of their lives. We feel them breathe, dream and fear. But it is also the huge emotions trapped and silent within these souls that most hooked this reader, the vast drama that is the human condition.

Most Russian of all was perhaps The Man on the Veranda, where a retired clerk who once worked in a government office sits and judges, judges and sits as he himself decays. Ultimately, like many of the cast of Temporary Lives, he suffers from the frustration of a life unlived. There are "lines of dim rage around his mouth." This man internalizes everything so much that life creeps over him while he sleepwalks through it. It’s a tale that encapsulates the simple pain of being, a man who "lived on the precipice of a bottomless depth, a depth from which his wife’s querulous mouth gnawed and chewed at him…"

Throughout each story I felt the internal scream of each character; their pain was palpable. The female characters, in a society where sons are valued and women often presented with a servile future, were often the most silent and tormented of all. The wife for example who walks with Woolfian intent onto the beach in the title story Temporary Lives realizes with a crushing depression that her spent and unsated life is "full of debris" and that she is "knee-deep in it." In Another World chronicles a young girl reluctantly facing her inevitable womanhood, while being also fascinated by her mentally ill neighbours and her sister’s child-heavy but fulfillment-light existence. The prose may drip with descriptive elegance, but the story is always king.

All the stories are poignant but some are also extremely filmic – in particular the saga of What The Watchman Saw. Here a loyal law-abiding man is conflicted when he sees what he considers to be a minor burglary.  Initially he does nothing (ennui being a large part of Temporary Lives) but the burglary is actually a piece of a larger puzzle and there wrestles inside him a conscience that conflicts with his fear. It’s a great story and one worthy of a film script. In The Next Corpse Collector – which chronicles a macabre family business - the main protagonist heads towards a profound altered state and the journey toward his fate is magical and strange. The reader feels the loss of his disappeared brother. His mother also daily prepares food for her lost son, only to be forced to feed it to "the mangy flea-bitten dogs……" There is huge tragedy in this bereft mother: "She spoke softly to the dogs, as if they were her children."

The sensuality of the prose in Temporary Lives gives us such a strong sense of place (despite the thematic Russian analogy, India is very much its own "person" here.) Colour is particularly strong: "silky watermelon-pink, hot-tongue pink, inside-tomato-pink…" (Esther)

Despite the melancholy themes of this collection, these are not tales of unrelenting gloom. There are lessons to be learnt, not simply about the skill of writing, but also the poetic lessons of life that the reader may take away with them. Carpe diem, perhaps. Or that risk-taking and passion rather than passivity is the secret to living a solid and sated life. There is at least one character in Temporary Lives – but I am not revealing who – who learns a lesson and faces life afresh and with determination. Such is Ramola D’s skill that we hope and care for this person, wish them well in their next incarnation.

Read an excerpt from this collection on RamolaD.com

Julia Bohanna Most recently published in 100 Stories for Haiti, Julia has been shortlisted for The Asham (twice) and Mslexia. Winner of The Decibel Prize and published in Penguin’s Map of Me, she also took first prize in Woman and Home’s Story Competition in 2007. Also Assistant Editor of conservation magazine Wolfprint.

Julia's other Short Reviews: Nuala Ní Chonchúir "The Wind Across The Grass"

"Emerge: New Australian Writing"

Barry Graham "The National Virginity Pledge"

Mary Akers "Women Up On Blocks"
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What other reviewers thought:

AWP's The Writer's Chronicle

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