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Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings
Kuzhali Manickavel

A bright blue door gently wafted along the brown water and four men rushed out to save it because there was nothing better to do. A dog was pulled from the water only to die a few hours later behind the bakery. A stout black pig swam stubbornly upstream and looked like a tiny black island n the water. After unsuccessfully trying to pull it from the water, the men hooted and egged the pig on."

Reviewed by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

It is hard to define the twenty-first century short story; it has so many guises: traditional, flash, experimental, magic realist. There is no one firm definition that covers all the forms the story now has. It is even harder to define the surprising short fiction written by Kuzhali Manickavel – a writer born in Canada who has lived in India since the age of thirteen. Manickavel’s stories are a mixture of odd, disjointed flashes, surreal sketches, and more traditionally shaped tales which possess a rare freshness. She is not afraid of the darker corners of human experience and she uses a devilish humour which sits well with the strange goings-on in her work. She says of her own work that her themes are "isolation, dislocation, magic realism and surrealism." 

Her stories are typically set in India and involve obscure happenings and cryptic conversations. In the one-page story Do You Know How to Twist With Girls Like This?, Mira is slimming and is possibly anorexic. Her friends "imagine her shaving down her shoulders and ankles, breaking off what was extra and hiding it in suitcases under her bed." This sort of observation is typical of Manickavel’s writing: she revels in the quirky, left-of-field and impossible. 

She is a writer comfortable with exploring poverty and superstition, and many of her characters seem to live aimless, drifting existences that may or may not lead to trouble. In the fable-like story Ezekial Solomon’s Shoe, Seshadri is haunted by the missing Ezekial whose insect-infested shoe seems determined to stay and remind Seshadri of the absent man. Seshadri resists at first but finally quietly embraces the shoe’s presence as if it is Ezekial himself. 

Manickavel’s building up of detail to paint a complete picture is extraordinary: she never chooses the pedestrian image, always the strange and wonderful, often from nature: "The afternoon settles in the corners like bundles of thick wool." "…her fists are perched on the table like tiny anxious birds." "The Entomologist’s smile is a tiny half moon, weak and incapable of casting any light." She is good, too, on the detail of Indian food and landscapes; this adds an instant shot of authenticity and an anchoring of her characters in real, believable places. 

The book itself is beautifully produced by the Chennai-based publishers Blaft Publications; the text of the book is decorated with insects and even the story titles are done in a spidery hand. Blaft hope to publish South Asian authors exclusively at least for the near future. Hearteningly, for other writers, they discovered Manickavel’s work online and offered her a deal. The publishers might consider charging more for the book than £4.95. It is wonderful value but it is not in line with the normal cost of a paperback and I think readers will happily pay more for such an accomplished, attractive collection. 

Kuzhali Manickavel is an original, competently carving out a niche for herself in the short story genre. It is fortunate for the reading public that Blaft have recognized her unusual and exciting talents, so that we all might enjoy a trip into her surreal and wonderful worlds.

Read one of the stories from this collection online in Subtropics.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in Galway, Ireland. Her bilingual poetry collection Tattoo:Tatú (Arlen House, 2007) was shortlisted for the 2008 Strong Award. Her two short fiction collections were also published by Arlen House. She is fiction editor for Southword in 2008 and will represent Ireland at the Tokyo International Poetry Festival in November. She blogs at WomenRuleWriter.

Nuala's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"   

Patrick Chapman "The Wow Signal" 

PublisherBlaft Publications

Publication Date: 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?Yes

Author bio: Kuzhali Manickavel was born in Winnipeg, Canada, and moved to Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India, when she was thirteen. She is widely published on the Internet and in print magazines in the UK, Europe and the USA.

Read an interview with Kuzhali Manickavel

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