Hollow Stories By the Indian Sea — Tishani Doshi’s “Small Days and Nights”: A Review
Some stories thrive in the unsaid. Asking the readers to fill gaps in a story can make for a unique experience for each of them, without having anything to do with any kind of laziness on the author’s part. On the contrary, by letting us believe that we are smart enough to only need a few words to understand their message, we feel closer to the novel and its universe than we ever would have had the author laid down everything to simply passively consume. What could have been an ordinary experience becomes a beautiful secret, a hushed conversation between the pages.
The untold parts that make so much of Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights have the unfortunate opposite effect. The premise of the novel is enough to keep us intrigued at first: Grace, an Indian-born American emigree, returns to her hometown as the heiress of her recently deceased mother. Expecting this trip to be a break from her failing marriage and uncertain future on the American continent, her mother’s inheritance quickly turns out to be more than she bargained for. First on the list comes a mysterious pink and blue house standing by the shore of Paramankeni. And second comes the biggest surprise of all: an older sister suffering from Down Syndrome that Grace’s parents had put in an institution and thoroughly hid from her.
The novel’s non-linear structure is formerly disorienting, as our only real way to locate ourselves in time is often the number of ever-expanding puppies that Grace, her new found sister Lucia and the often mentioned yet seldom developed housekeeper Mallika keep under their roof. If this attempt at originality can pique our curiosity, it quickly grows exhausting, and only serves to show how thin Doshi’s plot and characters truly are. The descriptions made of Lucia, Grace’s disabled sister, seem out of a decades old representation of mental illness. Seeing such a recent book choosing to depict what could have been a fully developed disabled adult character as a particularly exhausting child who does nothing but be a burden for the abled people around her can’t help but feel like a huge step backwards.
It is worth remembering that everything we read about is from Grace’s perspective. This could excuse the particularly insensitive ways that the novel chooses to depict Lucia at times: an unreliable narrator trying to get us to sympathise with a situation they had no obligation to be a part of in the first place wouldn’t be unheard of. Grace turns out to be less of an unreliable narrator than a lifeless one, talking of her feelings, family, friends and lovers like she would of her furniture. Her past life in America is evoked through flashbacks, yet never expanded on for long enough for us to get a sense of how this past life affected her. The small days and even shorter nights that the novel’s title takes after merge into a confusing mass of unexplained and not frankly captivating routines. We learn a lot about the duo’s daily walks, Grace’s outings, sometimes getting a lackluster insight into the ambivalent feelings she carries towards her sister (and apparently everyone that isn’t herself). We don’t know much more about what allowed this lifestyle to happen in the first place. What did she study? Did she ever have a job? Any hobbies, even? What allowed her to live her life apparently feeding herself on mood shifts and dog breeding?
Few writers are good enough to make boredom interesting, and Small Days and Nights unfortunately only proves how difficult of a task it can be. There is without a doubt a hint of a good story hidden somewhere, either in Paramankeni or on the American continent. The India that Doshi depicts is not the one we are used to. This is the rare part of the novel where its lack of descriptions works to its advantage: as Grace travels through continents, presumably in search for herself or a higher meaning to life, India is not any less or more welcoming than America or Italy. For once, the lack of flourish around an emigree’s return to “home” feels refreshing rather than confusing, and it is unfortunate that this rare yet compelling energy isn’t carried to the rest of the novel.
Somehow too shy and too abrasive at once, Small Days and Nights sadly finds itself falling into the same oblivion as its protagonists. The hints of what could have been are not enough to compensate the emptiness of the narrative and characters as every chapter blends into the next in a short yet overlong novel that seldom justifies its existence. There are many great stories to be told about the confusion of coming back home after spending years away from it, and many have already been written — this just isn’t one of them.