Review: Crandolin – Anna Tambour (Chomu Press, 2012)

Review by Dinesh Raghavendra

Anna Tambour has written a book of short stories called ‘Monterra’s Deliciosa & Other Tales’ and a novel called ‘Spotted Lily’. Most people have not heard of her, and I have not read either of the two books that came out before Crandolin. A good friend of mine wrote a very good review of the book on his blog and I decided to try out the book so when my editor decided to contact Chomu Press for reviewing their publications, I took the leap and chose Crandolin.

The whole book is a mosaic of interlocking vignettes, each weirder than the one that went before it. I thoroughly enjoyed the oddball characters and the language is so startling and vivid. I had reached the point where weird fiction was getting boring for me before I picked up Crandolin, and this book injects a much needed shot in the arm. There are so many ideas ricocheting off each page and a sense of urgency that fuels the narrative, the reader barely has a chance to take a breath and I mean that in a good way. I enjoyed the ride and my imagination became all the more richer thanks to Ms. Tambour’s imagery.

Nick Kippax, the protagonist is a gourmet of the weird. He’s stumbles on a medieval cookbook in a library that references an archaic dish called “crandolin.” The crandolins are “light pink as the dawn they imitated as they probed cracks in the shutters protecting pink virgins in their beds.” He finds a stain on one of the pages of the cookbook and it piques his curiosity. He wonders whether it is one of the ingredients of the dish and tastes it only to vanish instantly and have his consciousness scattered across the space-time continuum.

This bit reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Alain Resnais wonderful little film ‘Je t’aime, je t’aime. But the similarities only last as regards the time travel part. The rest of this book is full of rip-roaring fun and the originality is strikingly good. I loved some of the ideas she comes up with and all the oddball characters. Ekmel, a nectar vendor in a far away Middle-Eastern district, and his client, Burhanettin and the memorable donkey.

Soon it becomes clear that they are all on a quest and there’s a trio of Russians—Valentin, Galina and Saava—on board a train traveling across USSR. Faldarolo, vagrant artist of the bladder pipe and the two artistic demiurges, the Muse and the Omniscient whose exchanges add a lot of fun to the already crowded ensemble. Lest I forgot there is also the cinnamologus, or Munifer, mustache fabricator to the Great Timūrsaçi, who has embarked on a quest for large quantities of virgin’s hair.

Tambour is a skilled weaver of tales. She manages to tie up all the arcs into a satisfactory climax and the third part of the book is very well structured. There are a lot of asides that serve their function well-acting as interludes in a book that needs respite once in a while but on the whole the narrative never wavers or digresses into pointlessness. Every word is measured and the brevity keeps the interest alive.

I keep getting tempted to compare her work with Jeanette Winterson but there are certain fundamental differences in their approaches. For one, religion is a strong undercurrent in Winterson’s novels while Crandolin has no religious ideas to entertain. For another, Anna Tambour’s imagination is vastly powerful than Winterson’s. Tambour draws on a wide range of arcana to produce what has to be the most inventive work of fiction I have read in a long, long time.

I cannot even trace the pop cultural artifacts have inspired Tambour’s work. Her characters and her premise seem to have sprung out of a vacuum and this makes her book stand out from almost every other work in the genre of the weird. Chomu Press has been getting a lot of good writers on their list and I am grateful for them for introducing me to the likes of Anna Tambour and Michael Cisco. This is a press to watch out for and I am definitely going to grab the other books written by Ms. Tambour to see how they are and hopefully they should be as exciting and fun as Crandolin is.

To sum up, a lot of things could have gone wrong if this story had been planted in the mind of any other writer. I can think of a lot of mainstream fantasy writers from India who might have completely run away with the premise and their wildest flights of imagination would still be tacky and boring. I am trying to hunt down parallels to Tambour’s work in other forms of art but I cannot find anyone in music or television or painting who can remind me of her quirky originality.

If there is one thing this book has succeeded in doing, it has stopped me from repeating the bland platitude that most of speculative fiction has turned dull and boring and the genre is under imminent threat by turning into a cliché. This book does not have a single dull moment and there is no space for a cliché on any page. For a short book it is brimming with ideas and I hope other writers use Crandolin as a jump-off point for their own explorations. We need writers like Tambour to feed the literature with originality and this book is as good a starting point as any.

Anna Tambour has carved a niche space in a relatively unknown genre and I definitely intend to recommend her work and spread the word about Crandolin. It deserves a wider audience by dint of its sheer originality. Next time I see someone complaining about the lack of ingenuity in fiction I am going to shove this book under their nose. Anna Tambour is one of the better writers that I have read in 2014. Do yourself a favor and read Crandolin.

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