Strange Horizons, April 8, 2019
Reviewed by Tara Grímravn
Strange Horizons’ second release for April brings to the table another story from Southeast Asia. When I first began reading, I wasn’t sure into which subgenre of speculative fiction the story would fall. It felt as though the story didn’t quite know what genre it wanted to be, and I couldn’t place it squarely in any one category. I ended up settling on it being a slow-burn style of psychological horror.
The tale itself is told by an unnamed female narrator. She speaks of monsters, like Smaran who eats brains and the wraith that waits at the gate, but neither of these is the real focus. The focus really is more on her interactions with her grandmother Amme who draws traditional kolams on the front porch every morning. The narrator even talks about seeing the geometric and mathematical patterns of those kolams in the world around her and realizes that, just as her grandmother Amme connects dots with lines of rice flour to make her designs, so too does a greater hand draw the lines that connect us all.
Even though I’m fairly certain this falls within the realm of horror, the terror is not overt. It’s subtle and subdued, so readers should be aware that they are not by any means going to find a fast-paced, spine-tingling chiller here. Instead, this story is slow and incredibly nuanced. It’s meant to make one pause and think, and there are a lot of cultural references to unpack. Because of the latter, some may find it difficult to get a firm grasp on the story.
For me, I actually had to do a bit of research into the traditions mentioned in the tale to be able to interpret the full meaning behind it. Without out that knowledge, I would have missed quite a bit of the author’s intent. I didn’t mind that, though, because India and its many cultural traditions have always occupied a very fond place in my heart so I found it fascinating to read about the importance and meanings of kolams.
To that end, readers need to know that kolams are created for a number of reasons. In a nutshell, they’re considered to be auspicious and bring a blessing to the house, and they also have a strong religious meaning attached to them. Drawn in rice flour, they’re essentially symbols of living in harmony with the world around you, a reminder that unseen lines connect us all and that doing “good karma” to others (including the small ants and insects that eat the flour) will bring blessings.
The reason that this meaning is important is that it’s grandmother Amme who draws the kolams. She’s the one who trusts others implicitly. It is Amme who takes her granddaughter’s hurtful outbursts gracefully. In short, she believes in the goodness of others and in doing good to others. She lives in harmony with the world.
In contrast, the narrator and the thieves who steal Amme’s necklace are not. And this is where the monster comes in. Even though the narrator wants to blame Smaran for her grandmother’s forgetfulness (something that Amme herself says is just old age), Amme is never tormented by or even sees the monsters. And Smaran, as threatening as she may seem to the narrator, certainly never acts like a fiend. In the final sentences, she appears to be a mirror, reflecting the uglier aspects of the narrator and perhaps even serving as a scapegoat. In fact, I couldn’t help but think that the answer to Smaran’s riddle, posed at the tale’s beginning, is the narrator herself, while Smaran, as the narrator says many monsters are, is nothing more than “someone to blame.”
Honestly, this is a very well written tale and I definitely recommend it. It certainly makes one think, seeing as the entire story is something of a riddle in its own right. Still, it was a little difficult to connect all the dots that the author lays out for us and, in all honesty, I’m quite certain that in my assessment, I’ve missed more than a few of the lines she wanted us to draw.