A lonely man whose wife has left him; a family torn apart when their oldest child suffers permanent brain damage in a freak accident; a son whose father has his alcoholic wife murdered; a man who wants to marry the woman he’s got pregnant, only for her to refuse him and get an abortion instead. These aren’t exactly the lives of “adventure and delight” the title of Folio Prize-winner and one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists Akhil Sharma’s first short story collection promises. Sharma, however, is a deeply humane writer, his prose redolent with the emotional realities of his characters, thus he’s also able to identify the small pleasures and fleeting moments of happiness in lives that are otherwise at best quotidian, and at worst punishing. The Christmas pizza and candy Ajay, the younger, uninjured brother, having “revealed his own selfishness,” weeps in front of his parents for in Surrounded by Sleep; the few short hours during which Anita, the recently married wife in If You Sing Like That for Me, feels deeply in love with her husband; and the final image in the story from which the book takes its title, in which Gautama, an Indian student in America, holds the big, beautiful breasts of a prostitute while she jumps up and down feeling “that nobody else anywhere could be leading a life of such adventure and delight.”
There are stories here about the immigrant experience, the reality of which is often at odds with expectation. But whether in Delhi or New York, these characters have to reconfigure their dreams and desires to suit the cards they’ve been dealt in life. “It was not that I expected to marry someone particularly handsome. I was neither pretty nor talented, and my family was not rich,” thinks Anita making peace with her “slightly overweight” husband, a man whose “smallness” is his defining feature. “What I wanted was to be with someone who could make me different, someone other than the person I was.” Such ordinary anguish, so extraordinarily shattering: this is where Sharma’s great skill lies. He doesn’t deal in platitudes, sometimes things don’t get better, often they simply get worse – “But now Ajay was starting to understand that the world was always real, whether you were reading a book or sleeping, and that it eroded you every day” – and shame is everywhere in this book.
A powerhouse of a collection, these beautiful, devastating stories will break your heart, but they’re never depressing. However solipsistic Sharma’s characters are – in Cosmopolitan the abandoned husband readily admits that he’s “not curious about other people’s lives” – they are never beyond our empathy. I was left wanting so very much to believe the mother of the man in The Well when she’s speaking to the woman her son has got pregnant: “What he did was not respectful. It was not kind. But good things can come from things that start badly. God is there in everything. He is there in the good and the bad.”
‘A Life of Adventure and Delight’ by Akhil Sharma is published by Faber, £12.99