From the award-winning author of An Obedient Father (2001 Hemingway Foundation PEN Award) and Family Life (2014 New York Times Best Books of the Year; 2015 Folio Prize; and 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award), comes a collection of short stories that entertains and spares no one. In Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight, eight stories explore the quest for perceptible love, the life and liberty of relationships, and the perpetual pursuit of happiness.
Each story is built on profiles of characters old and young, flawed and beautiful, traditional and modern, all searching for a sense of love or at the very least belonging. However, whether they learn from their mistakes is at the core of each protagonist.
At times Sharma employs short, sharp sentences that reflect a Hemingway-esque clarity and precision. His writing is neither pedantic nor oratory, leaving the grist in the details proficiently enough to evoke varying levels of humor in despair.
The collection is built on missteps, selfishness, lack of communication, and unshakeable tradition. Yet there is wit, and there is hope—two things without which these stories would be far less powerful. The collection’s title is ironic, for there is little adventure in the stories and even less one would call delight. They are stories that have no conventional beginning, middle, or end. They are, separate and together, slices of life, glimpses into the human condition.
The opening story, “Cosmopolitan” and the title story, “A Life of Adventure and Delight” are possibly the two most sadly humorous of all. Both speak to a sexual naiveté and a desire to be more than one’s former self.
In “Cosmopolitan,” a retired man, alone after his wife and grown daughter have left him, decides to create a new life for himself by instigating a friendship with his neighbor, Mrs. Shaw. This leads to a more intimate relationship, while Gopal studies every woman’s magazine he can get his hands on. His mission is to become the perfect man and perfect partner.
In “A Life of Adventure and Delight,” a graduate student who craves the juxtaposed excitement and unease of setting up meetings with prostitutes does a complete reversal and looks for a virtuous Indian woman for a wife. Just when he feels his past is history, he becomes irritated with his girlfriend’s sexual reserve.
The eight stories address issues from the innocence of youth to the perceived chance for love to the hopelessness and despair that may have been dormant in the characters’ lives all along. Sharma looks at the roles of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, spouses and lovers, the world outside and inside the intimate confines of one’s home. This collection runs the gamut from tender to dark, from sweet to cruel, and all without the sentimentality that would render it toothless.
“Surrounded by Sleep” is an abbreviated version of the novel Family Life—the story of how Sharma’s family changed and functioned when the his older brother sustained a severe brain injury after diving into a public pool. Told in the third person limited (compared to the novel, which is first person), love for family clashes with the younger brother’s desperate attempts to bargain with God—whom he sees as Superman and Clark Kent—to make things right for everyone. This is Ajay’s reality in the face of his father’s growing alcoholism and his mother’s all-consuming need to care for her brain-damaged son. Grief is pervasive, yet there is hope in abundance, for without it, the Sharma family would have disintegrated.
Of the stories, only three feature a first person point of view (“We Didn’t Like Him,” “If You Sing Like That for Me,” and “The Well”). “If You Sing Like That for Me” is the only story that has a female protagonist. In it Anita, constantly reminded that she’s not as educated as her sister, fights against love and marriage only to find herself arranged to marry a man who didn’t particularly interest her but who might cure her loneliness. One day, seven months into their marriage, she wakes up and realizes that she feels love for this man in their misarranged union.
As with his two novels, Sharma’s writing is clean, simple on the surface but overflowing with complexities. One can almost imagine him toiling over each word to convey just the right tone, meaning, and nuance. The result is the easy exposure of the hearts and bones of those who come under his literary microscope. The emotions that drive the characters are relatable and familiar, if not in one story then certainly in another.
The darkest and saddest story, “You Are Happy?” takes a serious look at arranged marriages borne as a business connection and the most horrible of consequences that can occur because of family pride and personal actions. Young Lakshman watches his parents torture each other with shouting and sarcasm. The unhappier his mother is with her life, the deeper she sinks into alcoholism—not an altogether uncommon theme in the collection. Eventually, Lakshman’s father returns his mother to her family in India, and only later does he understand what horrible event prevents her from ever returning to him.
Sharma’s characters are unwaveringly-flawed creatures, but imperfections reflect society. There are men who are lonely, who cry, who drink to feel better, and who can feel nothing when they discard a supposed loved one.
Sharma’s style carries an abundance of narrative with little dialogue. “Show, don’t tell” is a cardinal rule of fiction writing, but rules are meant to be broken once the rules are mastered. As he breaks that rule, he does it with confidence and grace in the creation of a cohesive collection.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina where she is the Managing Editor of a newspaper, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and Publicity Director for WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund.