I was first drawn to Rajesh Parasmeswaran’s debut, I Am An Executioner: Love Stories, because of its striking cover — in fact, it’s probably my favorite cover so far this year. Then I read a little about the stories and was hooked: I love short story collections, and these quirky love stories sounded like they were perfect for me. And sometimes, they were. The nine stories that fill this book aren’t your typical love stories; they’re comically dark, and many are sad or twisted. But though Parameswaran is a talented writer, the book as a whole left me feeling lukewarm.
The book starts off strong with “The Infamous Bengal Ming.” The story is told from the point of view of a tiger living in captivity at a zoo. He’s constantly teased by the other tigers, but there’s only one thing that he can focus on: he’s madly in love with Kitch, his zookeeper. Alas, the love is doomed from the beginning, and the story unfolds into quite an adventure for the hapless tiger. That “comically dark” comment I made earlier? This story is its poster child.
Another one I adore is the title story, about an executioner living in India. He’s an older man whose first wife left him, and he has just remarried a woman named Margaret, whom he met online. He was desperately lonely and had hoped that Margaret would fill that void in his life, but once Margaret learned what he did for a living, she was repulsed and wouldn’t come near him. As the story develops, we learn a little more about his duties as an executioner and see the ways he tries to make Margaret warm up to him. The writing is perfect; it’s told from the uneducated executioner’s point of view, so it’s written in the broken English that he prides himself on having learned.
Unfortunately, for every story I enjoyed, there seemed to also be a story that didn’t quite do it for me. “Narrative of Agent 97-402,” about an undercover agent doing surveillance on a suspect, is mildly interesting throughout but leaves much to be desired by the end. “Elephants in Captivity (Part One)” is one that I suspect people will either love or hate, and I fell toward the latter; the story itself is great, but I hated the footnote-laden execution of it. A couple of others started off strong and lost their steam by the end.
Even with all these reservations, I do want to reiterate that Parameswaran is an excellent writer. Several of the stories are on the longish side, and I’d be curious to see what he does with an entire novel — I would absolutely read another one of his books in the future. When I Am An Executioner shines, it can leave you feeling a gamut of emotions. It’s not a bad book; I just wish it was a little more even in its execution.
I Am An Executioner: Love Stories was released by Knopf on April 10, 2012.