Review by Cielo G. Festino
Jessica Faleiro’s latest book, The Delicate Balance of Little Lives, is in line with other collections of short stories about women’s lives by Goan women authors in the different languages of Goa. Only that as times change, women’s predicaments change too. What they have in common, however, is that if the lives depicted might be little, the stories are powerful weapons to raise awareness about the condition of women. Each one of the five stories that comprise the book has a woman as its main character and deals with the unusual and, sometimes, tragic events that have, sadly, become part of their everyday lives. Though at times these women have been marginalized by the community, Faleiro makes a point of showing that they are ordinary people, like the reader, who have to deal with their frustrations one day at a time. This rich array of female characters, as well as all the other characters, both female and males with whom they interact, suggests at times an old colonial Goa, which has lingered on into the present, like the old widow and notorious town gossip who has the power to decide who does or does not attend mass, or more modern characters like women who would rather become writers than get married, piano-players with tattoos who have become functioning alcoholics, gigolos who give interviews about their trade in a highly professional manner, priests ready to give up the cloth to save a prostitute from an abusive father, or, perhaps save themselves, from a life constrained by celibacy. No matter what their plight might be, all of them are presented in a highly compassionate manner that can be touching or even funny. As Faleiro says in the acknowledgements, what inspired her to write these stories 'was the sense of trauma that women in middle- class Goan society live through when they encounter loss, whether this is of a place, a thing, a person or a feeling.'
Though the book is organised in five stories that stand on their own, the collection reads as a short-story cycle, a group of stories by the same author related by locality (Goa), character (mainly young women), theme (loss), besides other commonalities. The destiny of each character is deeply intertwined with those of the characters in the other stories. Hence, the secondary character in one story becomes the main character in the next; a character presented through action in one story, as the embittered old widow whose motives remain obscure for the reader, takes centre-stage in the next when she is seen, at very close range, through the eyes of a relative or a neighbour, who discloses the reasons for her venom. If the short story is the genre of the understatement, in the short-story cycle, narratives complete one another. The loose ends in one story are tied up in the next. And this Faleiro does with great dexterity. It is only when the reader has read them all and seen the same character from different angles, which might contradict each other, as in real life, that it is possible to understand why the balance between the lives of the women and the men in Faleiro’s imaginary community is so delicate that they seem to crash against each other, or even, kill each other, when their paths cross.
Through this strategy, which keeps the reader engrossed in the story, Faleiro masterfully conveys a very precise and vivid narrative style; life in a quaint Goan village, in which the distinction between the private and public is almost non-existent as the village is home to all and the street a continuation of the houses. The common meeting point is the Royal Grove luxury beach resort. From being a small family hotel, it has become an exclusive resort, thus marking one of Goa’s defining qualities, it being simultaneously a place both provincial and cosmopolitan. As for the fictional time of the short stories, it is quite elusive. If in one story there is a reference to the Goan journal O Heraldo, when it was still written in Portuguese, during colonial times, often the characters’ behaviour suggests more modern, or even postmodern, social mores. This blending of eras is another of Faleiro’s narrative strategies which has as its main aim to bring under the scope of her writing Goan women from all generations.
In The Delicate Balance of Little Lives Faleiro affirms her skilfulness as a writer, which she had already shown in her novel Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa (Rupa, 2012). The terse prose, the convincing characters, their plights, and a plot full of unexpected turns make of her linked novel a real page- turner.
Cielo G. Festino holds a PhD in Indian Literature in English from Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil (2005). She teaches English at Universidade Paulista, São Paulo Brazil and collaborates with the Master´s programme at Universidade Federal de Tocantins, Porto Nacional, Brazil. She is a member of the project 'Pensando Goa.'
The Delicate Balance of Little Lives (2018) can be purchased here.