In debut short story collection Half Gods, Akil Kumarasamy gives us the painful fragments of her characters' experiences with care, as if she is handing us shards of broken glass.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The ten stories in Akil Kumarasamy's debut collection, Half Gods, follow the lives of a family displaced by the Sri Lankan civil war. As they settle in America, making new friends and finding new loves, the after-effects of their many losses stay with them forever. Even the handful of people they encounter are each dealing with their own losses. As Kumarasamy writes in one of the stories, "They all loved people who were born to disappear."
Patriarch Muthu escapes to the US with his young daughter after losing his wife and twin sons to violence. His friend, an entomologist named Jeganathan, has also lost a son but chooses to stay behind. Another childhood friend, Selva, has quite a different trajectory that involves crime and murder along the way.
Muthu lives long enough, despite losing a lung to his smoking addiction, to see his daughter carve out a life as a single mother and the grandsons understand some of his pain. We encounter Muthu through the points of view of all of these people in different stories and at different stages of his life. Throughout, the consistent image is that of a man whose yearning for his old country, despite everything that happened to him there, never leaves him.
The daughter, Nalini, grows up to marry an Indian-American (a Punjabi) and have an affair with his brother. When her husband leaves her, she turns to nursing to earn a living and finds a few other friends to make up for the many losses she has endured. And yet, her life remains unsettled and off-kilter.
The two sons, Arjun and Karna, are named after the demi-gods in the Hindu epic, The Mahabharata. Though separated by a few years, they are deeply-connected in every way. Even when they grow up and become somewhat emotionally distant because of Karna's homosexuality and acting career struggles, their shared childhood losses keep them bound to one another.
A handful of characters get their own stories: Jeganathan, who loses his own son in the civil war and unravels painfully; Muthu's tea plantation friend, Selva, who turns to stealing and murder before adopting a daughter; Selva's adopted daughter, Saraswati, who tries, for a long time, to make sense of the quiet civil war between her parents; and the gently grieving butcher, Marlon, who tries to cope with the loss of his daughter and the wife he left behind in his old country, while falling in love with Nalini.
Kumarasamy gives us the painful fragments of these characters' experiences with care, as if she is handing us shards of broken glass. Her language is specific and precise in showing how they respond to their worlds like wounded animals whose ancient, primal fears are triggered easily beyond their own comprehension. There are some startling and fresh metaphors and similes (e.g., "he would lift his belly like a dress.") Scenes and settings are drawn with close, attentive brushstrokes. Relevant historical facts about Sri Lanka's long, bloody civil war are woven into plots and subplots thoughtfully.
Assiduously, Kumarasamy avoids the traditional tales of assimilation and identity conflicts that many other writers would have taken here. Going beyond those aspects, her gaze focuses more on the underlying and long-lasting patterns that occur in the lives of people who have been uprooted and transplanted and how they, in turn, affect the lives of others.
And yet, there's something about these stories that doesn't come together with the potency that, given the subject matter, one might expect. A linked short story collection is a more flexible form than a novel. It allows a writer to trim away all the fat needed in a novel while also accommodating even more gaps and mysteries in the larger story. It allows the writer to circle around a few key themes or settings or plot points from different points of view or time while creating stories that can stand alone by themselves. It allows for a greater intensity through compression while ensuring as many or more complications as a novel can hold.
In her landmark essay, 'Modern Fiction', Virginia Woolf made an important point about how life is more about a series of connected moments. Though she was talking mostly of the novel, it works well as a justification for why the interlinked short story collection is a necessary form and can work:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there [...] Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
Overall, there's an expectation for an interlinked short story collection to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Here, it almost seems as if Kumarasamy might have attempted to write a novel or a different form of fiction to begin with, and then taken the pieces from that unsuccessful effort and brought them together as a short story collection. Due to this, the individual stories read more like novel excerpts. There are long, descriptive sections within the stories that meander and cause the larger story to lose its intensity and punchiness. The gaps between the stories are too many and too wide for readers to bridge on their own. It's like trying to watch a film reel where the most important bits are missing, and several of the remaining flickering images are of the insignificant moments that cannot hold our interest for any sufficient length of time.
The order of the stories in such linked collections also matters a great deal. They don't need to be presented chronologically but they do need to have some logic to their flow. With this collection, that logic is not in much evidence.
Further, there are a few anachronisms where, say, an illiterate tea plantation worker might not think in terms of a certain kind of metaphor. Or, a child's imagination might not register quite so many impressions so insightfully on a day at the beach.
In the end, the awful tragedies of these characters don't affect us quite as much as they ought to. They don't make us captive in their harrowing worlds. They don't make us invest ourselves by wondering about what-ifs and why-nots.
As a debut collection, Half Gods is still a commendable effort. As it gives us glimpses of a country's history that is still being parsed and whose aftermath will be with us for a long time yet, it's worth a read.