“My father lost my mother one evening in a final round of gambling at the poker table,” writes the narrator of “When She Was Queen,” the title story of a new collection by bestselling novelist and two-time winner of the Giller Prize, M.G. Vassanji. That fateful evening in Kenya becomes “the obsessive and dark centre” of the young man’s existence and leads him, years later in Toronto, to unearth an even darker family secret.
In “The Girl With The Bicycle,” a man witnesses a woman from his hometown of Dar es Salaam spit at a corpse as it lies in state at a Toronto mosque. As he struggles to fathom her strange behaviour, he finds himself prey to memories and images from the past–and to perilous yearnings that could jeopardize his comfortable, middle-aged life.
Still reeling from the impact of his wife’s betrayal, a man decides to stop in on an old college friend in “Elvis, Raja.” But he soon realizes that it’s not always wise to visit the past as he finds himself trapped in a most curious household, where Elvis Presley has replaced the traditional Hindu gods.
The other stories in the collection also feature exceptional lives transplanted. A young man returns to his roots in India, hoping to find his uncle and, perhaps, a bride. Instead, he becomes a reluctant guru to the residents of his ancestral village. A mukhi must choose between granting the final sacrilegious wish of a dying man and abiding by religious custom in a community that considers him a representative of God. A woman is torn between the voice of her dead husband–a cold and grim-natured atheist–and her new, kind and loving husband whose faith nevertheless places constraints on her as a woman. On Halloween night, a scientist lays bare his horrifying plan to seek vengeance on the man who thwarted his career.
Set variously in Kenya, Canada, India, Pakistan, and the American Midwest, these poignant and evocative stories portray migrants negotiating the in-between worlds of east and west, past and present, secular and religious. Richly detailed and full of vivid characters, the stories are worlds unto themselves, just as a dusty African street full of bustling shops is a world, and so is the small matrix of lives enclosed by an intimate Toronto neighbourhood. It is the smells and sentiments and small gestures that constitute life, and of these Vassanji is a master.
Vassanji’s seventh book and his second collection of short stories, When She Was Queen was shortlisted for the 2006 Toronto Book Award. The jury said: "Vassanji's Naipaulian language is like a sharp short knife that cuts through the superficial and gets to the heart and soul of the narrative.”