Reading Ambai’s* collection, A Kitchen in the Corner of the House, is like being a tourist in the lives of woman across Tamil Nadu, India. These stories, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, take us inside homes where woman are living lives of quiet (more or less) desperation. Many of these women feel trapped by the expectations of being a girl and a woman: being on a fast track to wife and mother; cooking, cleaning, and caring for everyone in the family; keeping silent and biddable. The tension comes from wondering if the protagonist of each story will find some kind of freedom—at least a room of her own for self-expression—or if they will continue to live circumscribed existences.
To be honest, many of the stories in this collection blurred together for me. Part of this is because so many of the stories feature the same themes and the same sort of characters. Many of the stories take place inside rooms that could be anywhere in southern India. Another part of the problem may be the translation or the fact that I was reading a mostly unformatted advanced reader copy. There are a lot of pronouns for which I couldn’t trace antecedents. A better formatted copy might have had helpful section breaks to help. It might also have helped in Holmström had taken the liberty of swapping some of the pronouns for names.
Because I had such a hard time telling the stories apart (aside from section titles), it’s hard to pick standouts. There were some stories that peeked over the parapet (mostly because of their depiction of southern Indian food), but distinguishing them isn’t all that important to the experience of A Kitchen in the Corner of the House. Readers interested in the experience of woman (there don’t appear to be any trans characters) in India should enjoy this book because of it’s fly-on-the-wall point of view. It’s also a book that requires slow, careful reading, which may also appeal to readers who are looking for books that don’t try to give you whiplash with wild plot twists.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.
* Ambai is the pen name of Dr C.S. Lakshmi.