'Half Gods' and Painful Fragments

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.

Half Gods
Akil Kumarasamy

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

May 2018


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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.