A short story collection that captivates from the very start, Subjunctive Moods is a spectacular triumph and brilliant example of how setting can really bring a story to life. Menon is no stranger to multi-cultural experiences, and this shines through in her short prose. Each story is crafted to the utmost quality, and we feel just at engrossed in the countryside of middle England as we do in monsoon-season Malaysia. Subjunctive Moods is a delightful collection of stories that, as the title suggests, exist outside the constraints of time.
Menon’s main, undeniably spectacular skill is the ability to craft these stories in a range of settings, many of which are worlds apart. Menon elegantly switches between 1990’s England, serene Cochin, and the unforgiving Australian outback. Not only is each setting beautifully crafted and bound together by the formidable prose, but the characters are unique too. Different ages, time periods, and nationalities are explored in these pieces. Some stories concern young families, others focus on older couples coming to the end of their romantic existences together. Relationships between the living and the dead are uncovered and delved into, and friends hide their secrets while they continue to care for one another. What struck me the most about this collection was just how effortlessly each scene was set up, and how quickly I was immersed into each characters’ lives. ‘Relatability’ is something often discussed when it comes to determining how much someone enjoys a piece of (usually) fiction, however none of these pieces were ‘relatable’ to my own circumstances, and – I’m going to guess – largely to Menon’s either.
The multiculturalism of the collection and the crossed borders that exist in many of the stories – Russian-exchange students, Cantonese-speaking Malaysians, a dead Indian grandmother who has followed her granddaughter to Wales – help to complete and also divide the narratives. Each one is remembered individually for different reasons. Menon seems just at home creating each character, and celebrates their uniqueness by showcasing their cultural quirks. However, the theme that connects each story is the title of the collection – Subjunctive Moods. A quick grammar recap explains perfectly why Menon chose this title, which is also the title of one of the stories in the collection, perhaps the strongest one at that. Simply put, the subjunctive mood is used to explore conditional or imaginary situations, such as hypotheticals, wishes, suggestions, and commands or demands. Indeed, I read each story almost through a mist of fog – there was something uncertain about the characters and their varying narratives. While Menon plays with her words and the story dances around them, her characters are left navigating their place and purpose, musing over the various ‘could haves’ and ‘would be’ situations that trouble their minds. Ghosts and figures of the past feature heavily throughout the stories, cementing this sense of pondering what could have been and what instead, was. When we finally leave the story and the unsteady character at the end, we often aren’t left on a clear conclusion, in which their lives are/will be better or worse. Yet, it doesn’t matter. We have been taken through their journey, we understand their existence, we too understand actions, and wrap ourselves up in that cloudy feeling that the story leaves us with.
While the collection contains no weaker stories, there are a few personal standouts. The title story – Subjunctive Moods – is quite possibly the strongest story of the collection. I loved the exploration into a muddled female friendship, complicated even more so by the addition of a clash of cultures. It focuses on growing up too fast, on body image and fitting in. It is everything that every teenage girl has experienced, the importance placed on those few precious years, which ultimately turn out to be futile in the face of something much larger. Another superb story is Clay for Bones, in which we see a young woman followed by her dead Indian grandmother as she goes through a pregnancy. I often love alternative stories of motherhood, tales that give the topic a darker, yet often more honest perception of the theme. Clay for Bones features some gut-wrenching lines that really pierce through the reader –
“My slackened dark skin and briny blood were inhospitable; my tropical womb was choking its tiny Welsh invader.”
There’s a focus on innocent death, but also on life, acceptance and the connections between strangers. The final image of the narrator walking off, content and swallowing her fingernails is both disturbing yet poignant, and finishes the pieces perfectly. A final mention goes to the final story in the collection, Rock Pools, which is also the second story to focus on the remote Farne Islands. Menon makes the famous bird migration her main focus here, placing the birds’ behaviours upon a strained relationship. The strong, determined nature of the wife is subtle in this piece, and she gives her some fantastic thoughts –
“Oh yes. My husband, in as much as a ring in tissue paper and a thousand broken promises make a husband.”
While the returning husband flitters around her, turning her home upside-down and pressing for something that will never work, the wife waits, quietly, until the time comes again for him to leave. A brightness consumes her when he leaves for the last time, and her freeing bird-like behaviours are fully imagined in the final paragraphs. This last sentence in particular captures the joyful ending of the story, satisfyingly finishing the entire collection –
“The seagulls rise in panic, leaving this city of widows to our sea foam, and our throbbing darkness and gleeful knowledge of what we lack.”
Subjunctive Moods is a delightful collection that will sit with you for days, if not weeks. It is also a great source of inspiration for any other short story writers – not in the sense that you can simply recreate what Menon has produced, but in the way that it showcases the variety and scope of what can be achieved across just a few pages, and still all within an entirely comprehensive collection. An exciting writer, and I eagerly await any further work.
Subjunctive Moods is published by Dahlia Books and is available here.
CG Menon has won the Bare Fiction Prize, the Leicester Writes Prize, The Short Story Award, the Asian Writer Prize, The TBL Short Story Award and the Winchester Writers Festival award. She’s been shortlisted for the Fish short story prize, the Short Fiction Journal awards, as well as the Willesden Herald, Rubery and WriteIdea prizes and the Fiction Desk Newcomer award. Her work has been published in a number of anthologies and broadcast on radio. She is currently studying for a creative writing MA at City University and working on her first novel.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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