Reviewed by Amalia Clarice Mora
Title: The Delicate Balance of Little Lives
Author: Jessica Faleiro
Self-Published, 2018 (supported through a grant from the Government of Goa’s Directorate of Art and Culture)
The Delicate Balance of Little Lives is a short story collection by Jessica Faleiro, the award-winning Goan author of the Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa.
This collection offers a glimpse into defining moments of five women whose lives intersect. The proximity of defeat is a central theme in all the stories; the women are close to falling off the edge of their lives but, somehow, never do. Instead, they navigate through the solemn and unexpected and even the catastrophic (rather than overcoming “triumphantly”). They enjoy the small mercies and secrets that prevent them from losing their hold on stability, but which are also the reason they have to cling so desperately to this stability in the first place.
There is Suzanne, a once well-known concert pianist whose fame and musical confidence have waned with age. Alcoholism is her stealth, insidious disease, but alcohol is also an elixir that provides her with the confidence to play at her only gig as a hotel lobby musician. Liquor dulls “the sharp edges of her feelings”, the cruelty of a lover who keeps her at bay, and the memory of a past lover, Rohan, who had asked her to quit the drinking — and the piano playing that necessitated it — but who was unwilling to give up a vice of his own.
Cristina is a sex worker whose father began sexually abusing her at age seven, after her mother’s suicide. In spite of this, her love for him is unflinching — and complicated. It is a filial love but also sexual and romantic. When Francisco, the local priest, falls in love with her, he proposes running away together. Cristina is flattered but also unnerved; Francisco is imagining himself a savior rescuing her from a depraved life, and yet, as she notes, it is clear that he, too, is capable of having a feeble moral backbone. “I knew that I could never abandon my father, but don’t you see? You will never be able to say the same. Who’s the more loyal of us both?”
Penny is a writer who lives with her nagging, judgmental mother, a retired maths tutor concerned with keeping up appearances and bragging about the successes of her former students. She incessantly berates Penny for choosing a career as a writer instead of a life as a wife and bearer of grandchildren, though Penny knows that no achievement would ever be good enough for her mother. Penny begins writing crime novels, using people she knows in real life as inspiration for the killers’ characters. When the real life muses begin to die in the identical way their fictionalized killer selves do, she realizes that she has the ability to write people to death.
Miranda is an attractive, unmarried middle-aged woman. She envies her married friends, who celebrate the weddings of their children or the births of grandchildren. She had resigned herself to the idea of a life without romantic companionship after she became her ill mother’s primary caretaker, but still aches when she thinks about her old boyfriend, Alfred. He abandoned Miranda for her best friend, Cynthia, years ago, though the two women eventually patched up their friendship. However, when Alfred dies of a heart attack after a party, the sting of his betrayal hits Cynthia anew, and Miranda decides that just as Cynthia had deceived her, she would keep a secret from Cynthia.
Finally, there is Joy, an investigative journalist and one of the friends whose marriage Miranda admires. One afternoon, Joy interviews Rohan, Suzanne’s old flame, in his hotel room. Throughout the interview, which concerns his profession as a gigolo, he notices her pauses, he notices her noting his motions, and she notices his noticing. This attentiveness is at the heart of his magnetism, and it makes Joy reflect on her husband, who lacks attentiveness completely when it comes to sexual intimacy.
Some of the characters in the stories are linked through friendship or lovers-in-common, tying all their lives together is the Royal Grove Luxury Resort hotel, where Suzanne plays the piano, where Cristina meets her clients, where Penny writes, and where Joy interviews. There is also the hotel bartender, Mickey, who bestows little acts of grace on the women, from the hotel room discount he arranges for Penny, which allows her to finish her novel in peace, to the cocktails he brings to Suzanne intermittently throughout the night that keep her at just the right level of intoxication. One could say that hotel itself, too, offers the women respite; a lobby where Miranda sees Alfred alive for the last time, a room in which Joy begins to put her own pleasure first.
The finely tuned plots in The Delicate Balance of Little Lives make the book read like a short story collection, but the interconnectedness of the characters’ lives provides continuity and a sense of development so that the book feels like a novel. Faleiro’s writing itself is also syncretic, combining an economy of language with sprinkles of lyricism: “Charlene had thick, lustrous hair that fell to her waist in a long curtain. She wore it away from her face with a headband and it moved in a gentle swathe of black night with every little shift of her body.”
Faleiro’s wit manages to keep even the darkest moments light: after Penny’s mother tells her she would “hate to be left behind” if her only child passed away, Penny has the urge “to tell her mother that her venom and bitterness were enough to keep her pickled for all eternity”. The author also masterfully captures the hum of Goa’s landscapes (“the scent of paddy fields and the cacophony of hundreds of crickets trying to harmonise and failing miserably”), as well as the social and familial pressures, fissures, and compromises that accent the middle-class Goan cultural terrain. This Goa, the one that emerges from Faleiro’s pages, provides readers with an alternative to the idea of Goa as a touristic pleasure periphery that is so often circulated through popular media. Faleiro’s book is, however, ultimately a reverential ode to the women who endeavor to preserve the precarious “delicate balance” of their lives, to the women who are expected to be the caretaker or the cared for, the savior or the one who is saved.
Amalia Clarice Mora is an ethnomusicologist and multidisciplinary artist from Los Angeles, California. She received her PhD from UCLA, where her research explored the relationship between Goan cultural heritage performance, racialized narratives on female dancers and their bodies, and sexual violence. She has performed on stage in Spain, India, and the U.S., and her writing has appeared in a wide variety of publications. Currently she works at the University of Arizona for the UA Consortium on Gender-Based Violence and also serves as a faculty member for the Human Rights Practice Program.
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