iUniverse, $10.95, ISBN 0-595-37009-8
Contemporary Fiction, 2005
Beyond the Cayenne Wall is a collection of short stories revolving around the life, heartbreaks, and sometimes loves of various women in or around Karachi, Pakistan. Now, as a Chinese living in Asia, I am generally wary and even leery of literature featuring downtrodden but triumphant exotic women of color that never fail to capture the approval of critics everywhere in America. A part of me, a cynical part, wonders whether these stories would be so beloved if we replace these oppressed Chinese, Indian, or Middle-Western women with someone closer to their home, like, say, a Caucasian, Native American, Latin-American, or African-American woman.
Beyond the Cayenne Wall features short snippets of such stories. The stories have each a theme that revolves about how patriarchy sucks, how mothers-in-law suck, and how terrible life can be for the poor damsel caught in the web of sucky patriarchy. Some stories have happy endings of a sort, which is a far cry from the usual “And then, everybody dies!” kind of ending I have come to expect from works marketed literary fiction.
But, no matter how cynical I can be where Beyond the Cayenne Wall is concerned, I have to say that these stories manage to get under my skin more than I’d like to admit. They are well-written and the author has a simple yet elegant way with her prose. Besides, I like happy endings and some of these stories are pretty much Cinderella-style fables only with sarees instead of ball gowns and a bit of ambiguity instead of a happy ending involving hot sex with a Prince Charming and the fun of seeing the evil stepmother getting punished for her misdeeds. What can I say? I have a soft spot for such stories.
Beyond the Cayenne Wall is, I find, a collection of pleasantly enjoyable stories. Pleasant, but alas, not too exceptional in any way in my opinion. Still, Ms Shaila’s prose appeals to me greatly and I think I’ll be taking a look at her next book. Hopefully it will be longer to allow me to see what this author can really do on a good day.