Book Review

In Chaitali Sen’s A New Race of Men from Heaven, stories trade in understatement rather than flash, and it is this quality of restraint that activates their considerable power. Sen’s precise, unadorned sentences leave ample space between the lines, as if to give her characters sufficient room to navigate life’s challenges.

Consider Dhruv, the protagonist of the book’s opening story: “No matter what he wore or how he styled his hair, he would never carry himself with the easy confidence of American men.” Dhruv’s insecurity is both a glimpse into his psyche and a mirror for common anxieties,  making him authentic and relatable. “[Dhruv] would go home, not home but back to the hotel, take a hot shower and fall into bed.” His hotel is not the clichéd home away from home, rather a facsimile of home that will have to do; Sen’s characters, even if unmoored or adrift, have work, families, and responsibilities. With engaging realism, Sen avoids contrivances, crafts the remarkable out of the quotidian.

With the experience of diaspora central to the collection, to call Dhruv’s story “The Immigrant” is an elegant opening gambit. But Sen never presents her characters’ transplanted South Asian customs as if they were mere museum exhibits. Her emphasis, as William Trevor once put it, is on finding the universal in the local. Dhruv travels for business, visits look-alike faux French restaurants, and in all of them orders the same dish; comfort food becomes a symbol of the human need for the familiar. Nevertheless, missed connections and language barriers abound in the story. When a small boy goes missing, his disappearance, beyond plot significance, poses an essential question: what does it mean to be found?

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is the first-person account of a university department secretary; her devotion to her work is the stable through line in a strikingly tumultuous narrative. A disagreement turns ugly in a highly current way—Sen is a keen sociological observer—and spills over into issues of family, loyalty and the line between the professional and the personal. Throughout, the protagonist carried out her duties. For example, after a devastating event, she explains, “I was picked up and taken to the office, where Dr. Elam was waiting with a list of tasks…I would have to cancel classes, notify the students and faculty…and clear out the office for reasons I would not know until later.” Sen, aware that suspense proceeds from structure, reveals those reasons at the exact right moment.

In “The Matchstick by Charles Tilly,” the protagonist is a writer—a brave choice, as stories about writers can risk feeling hermetically mired in the clubby world of letters. But through a novel take on identity theft, Sen avoids this trope, while at the same time enlarging the story’s horizons and tensions. Nor does it hurt to have an appealingly self-critical main character. In one scene he remarks, “Whoever had written this bio obviously shared the opinion that my last book was perhaps the worst piece of serious literature to be published in this century.”

Sen leaves the characters in “North, South, East, West” nameless, a decision that feels essential to the story’s remote, suffocating atmosphere. The family in the story seems to struggle for breath in a narrative whose layered timeline recalls Alice Munro: “When they were young, they used to squeeze themselves onto a crowded city bus to get to and from school. Before they were ever lovers he’d gained an intimate knowledge of her maturing body from those bus rides alone, but even before that, they had often been physical in their play, like lion cubs.” After a betrayal, the story’s main female character attempts to escape the restrictions of her life, but is reeled back in through an event so disquieting that one feels compelled to reread the relevant passage, as if needing but also dreading confirmation. Here and elsewhere, Sen lets neither her characters nor her readers off easily.

Novelist Antonya Nelson once said, “Every story ought to be a coming-of-age story,” insofar as characters cross thresholds that allow no return. In “Uma,” after a life catastrophe of the sort Sen writes effortlessly, the eponymous title character contends with the upheaval the story sets in motion. In a new country, with its decoupling from the known, Uma’s hopes and expectations clash with the realities of family dynamics and a sense of you-can’t-go-home-again resignation. She struggles to reconcile her ancestral and adopted homes, but above all to make meaning from her new life: “Uma longed to be tired, the kind of tired that would make her feel like she was put on the earth for a purpose.”

The collection’s title story, which ends the book, begins with this memorable sentence: “I decided to seek counseling because I wanted to sleep with a man from my office.” By now we recognize Sen’s gift for invoking the unexpected directly and without bombast, like a literary form of soft power. In this case there is also considerable intrigue, and the chances of not reading further after an opening like this one are slim.

Of the many reasons why the narrator’s desire for her colleague could compel her to seek therapy, the actual one is both plausible and an utter surprise. One can almost feel Sen’s delight at having written it. Sexual psychology and a Freudian red herring play central roles, but the story never gets bogged down in neurosis. Sen navigates this territory through the welcome self-awareness of the narrator: “After a while I didn’t know why I made such a fuss in my twenties. In my thirties, my mind became blissfully uncomplicated.” But the story doesn’t end there; later the narrator learns something that “would have mattered long ago.” In fact it still matters, but now she knows how to carry it without being burdened, which seems to be the point.

The journey on which Chaitali Sen takes her readers makes stops in India, Brooklyn, Ithaca, Costa Rica, London, Long Island and elsewhere. Her “new race of men from heaven” is a peripatetic one, apparently, but still resolutely human: its members seek hope, connection, meaning and the strength to overcome. Sen is a sure-handed, reflective guide through her characters’ new and old worlds, their large and small concerns, and their extraordinary ordinary lives.

About the Reviewer

Geoff Kronik lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. His writing has appeared in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Blood Orange Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Salamander, The Common and elsewhere.