My Nine Lives by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Give them half a chance and they'll take you over
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The Independent Culture

In her latest book, Jhabvala, perhaps best known for her screenplays for James Ivory and Ishmael Merchant, has taken the immigrant experience and personalised it in a wonderfully unique way. These nine short stories, all told in the first person, tell versions of possible lives the narrator might have had. What is common to them all, however, is the figure of the interloper, the cuckoo-in-the-nest, the outsider who arrives and takes up his place, uninvited, in the home.

In her latest book, Jhabvala, perhaps best known for her screenplays for James Ivory and Ishmael Merchant, has taken the immigrant experience and personalised it in a wonderfully unique way. These nine short stories, all told in the first person, tell versions of possible lives the narrator might have had. What is common to them all, however, is the figure of the interloper, the cuckoo-in-the-nest, the outsider who arrives and takes up his place, uninvited, in the home.

That interloper must shift and shove until he or she finds - or steals - a place. In the opening story, "Life", the narrator, now middle-aged and living alone in India, has virtually handed her home over to Priti, who entertains her male friends there when the narrator is out. In "Menage", German immigrants Rudy and Leonora take in Yakuv, a brilliant pianist, who soon takes over their home too: "Soon came the sound of his piano, and every day after that it seemed to fill, to appropriate the apartment. If I moved around or shut a door a little too loudly, she or Rudy or both laid a finger on their lips."

You might say that appropriation, whether of a person, an experience, or a place, is the dominating theme of this collection. In "Gopis", middle-aged Indian Vijay comes to stay at the narrator's apartment, where a young colleague, Lucia, meets and falls in love with him. Vijay not only takes up an uninvited space in the apartment, he also takes up space in Lucia's life, as she follows him when he is extradited to India on extortion charges. In "Springlake", a sort of hippy spiritualist called Madame Voronska is brought into a great period home in America, and in spite of being cast out, soon returns to take up residence there, while the original owner's daughter lives in a hut at the bottom of the garden. And in "Refuge in London", the young narrator's aunt rents out rooms during the war to European immigrants just like her. One inhabitant, an artist known as Kohl, takes the girl's experience and immortalises it in paint.

Frequently there is a passivity on the part of the narrator towards what is happening to her - in "Life", she simply puts up with the opportunistic Priti using her apartment for herself without a word of objection. In other stories, such as "Menage" or "Springlake", disagreement is voiced but soon won over, or disregarded altogether. Sometimes these interlopers bring love or obsession, as Vijay does in "Menage"; sometimes they simply highlight the loss or absence of love. Jhabvala refers to Chekhov several times, and his view of love and time, the elusiveness of the former and the passing of the latter, haunt these narrator's "lives". The immigrant must upset the host nation as he finds a place for himself, just as the interloper in a home must upset the careful balance that exists there. We are all looking for love, Jhabvala says. And that makes interlopers of us all.

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