One would think the novella would find more favour in these times of abbreviated attention spans. Less demanding than the novel and meatier than the short story, it is the Goldilocks “just right” of texts. Susan Visvanathan’s “Nelycinda”, at just under a hundred pages, is a stunning novella. Told in twenty short chapters, it makes superb use of the neglected form, with a perfect balance of generosity and restraint. It should have been published as a stand-alone book; instead, Nelycinda & Other Stories becomes just that: one superlative piece of writing in a volume made unnecessarily plump with extras.
The title story is set just 300 years after the birth of Christianity, in a time when the southwest of India was a collision, or a collusion, of Roman, African, Chera, Chinese and other influences. Visvanathan writes about Kerala before it was Kerala with remarkable skill, painting a picture that is as vivid with texture and humanity as it is shorn of pretentiousness. At the centre of the novella is Susa, the wife of a wealthy trader who is frequently, and then seemingly permanently, travelling. At once ambitious and intimate, “Nelycinda” is both historical fiction and the story of one woman’s choices, circumstances and agency.
Not all the remaining stories in this collection are fillers, but the two that immediately succeed “Nelycinda” particularly pale in comparison. In “An Incomplete Travel Diary”, the second longest in the book, a former abused maid and her rich, impotent husband travel to India to adopt a child. In “Shopping in Paris”, both father and son in a family of Martiniquais musicians are obligated to choose between staying at home or travelling for work or love. Neither story compels in language or in mood, nor are their characters well-etched. It’s not progressive to suggest that an author mine a single landscape repeatedly, yet there is such a marked difference when Visvanathan writes about Kerala that it’s difficult not to wonder about her limitations.
A few stories are unmemorable, as when Visvanathan turns her gaze to Malayalis in the Middle East in “Gulf Baby” and “Further Away From Paradise, Returning Home”, or “Allapuzha”, which begins and continues as a short factual essay before suddenly diverting into a fictional introduction. There’s a pointlessness and an absence of grace in their lines, as though the evidently gifted author herself was ambivalent about them.
Still, the book is not without rewards. A trio of linked stories – “Correspondences”, “Pepper Vines Trail My Hair” and “Sludge Without Sun – are catalysed by the beautiful centre piece, in which a woman prophesied to die young maintains only a delicate and bittersweet attachment to the world. The first story comes long before the second, so that we arrive at the connection with delight. The collection ends on a strong note – “Odd Morning”, in which a Malayali American theatre actress leaves a train mid-journey, discomfited by its male passengers, and stays for weeks in a remote village.
Visvanathan is a curiously underrated author, despite her prolific output (Nelycinda & Other Stories is her fifth book of fiction; she is also the author of seven non-fiction works). In the best of her work, there is a lyricism and suppleness in the writing, tethered by deep reflections on history, gender and religion, and a distinction of style that deserves a larger audience. This collection of disparate pieces suffers only from bad curation. This doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the title story or the few persuasive ones. The demoted novella could have had better company, or none at all, but it is still a gem – albeit among a less sparkling assembly.
An edited version appeared in DNA.