Usually I'm all in favor of not reading too much about books before starting them. In this case, though, I wish I'd noted ahead of time that these are paired short stories. Each story overlaps just enough with its partner to cast a skewed light, ever so slightly warping and twisting what you thought you knew about the characters or their situation.
Sadly, I was slow to catch on to this pattern. Having never encountered a paired short story collection, I assumed all the stories in the book were linked, and thus wasted a fair amount of energy looking for repeating characters throughout the book. I should have recognized Rao had adopted a straightforward, rigid structure for the collection, because the stories themselves are so well-organized and perfectly contained. That's probably not a sexy way to describe a short story, but it appeals immensely to my concrete-sequential brain. Rao also wisely limits herself thematically by focusing the entire collection on one historical event: Partition—when, in 1947, India and Pakistan were divided by a line on a map into two distinct countries.
I couldn't help but compare Rao's collection with another I read recently, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi. If Oyeyemi's stories are like overgrown gardens that require a reader to bushwhack her way out (beautiful but oh-so-thorny!), Rao's stories are like perfectly smooth glass paperweights, plenty hefty but complete in themselves. I loved both collections, but upon reflection, they really could not be more different.
This is already one of my favorite books of the year: hard but redemptive in theme, spare and precise in style. Rao has a mysterious way of making her characters immediately knowable—a few lines in and you're right with her, waiting with wide eyes to see what will happen to them. And I know people say this all the time, but I can't believe this is a debut.
With regards to Flatiron Books and Goodreads for the review copy, which I was lucky enough to win in a recent giveaway. On sale now!