Despite what its name might suggest, A Life of Adventure and Delight is a book about neither adventure nor delight. Indeed, the eight short stories that make it up focus almost exclusively on ordinary people living mundane and often incredibly lonely lives. The fact that Ahkil Sharma can transmute the prosaic into the beautiful is no secret: his first novel An Obedient Father won the 2001 Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award and his second novel, Family Life, won the Folio Prize in 2015 and the International Dublin Literary Award in 2016, in no small part due to this talent. But it is the distillation of Sharma’s world view into these eight devastatingly human stories that best displays his genius, at least in this reviewer’s mind.
Each short story focuses on an Indian protagonist – all male, with one extraordinary exception – living either in India or in the US. Some of these men are hapless, some merely unhappy. Many are solipsistic, egocentric and full of internalised prejudice. All are flawed, and Sharma inhabits these imperfect characters with compassion and honesty. He writes about men trying to understand women and about immigrants trying to navigate their new American lives. He writes about male egos and about the women that suffer for them. He writes about reaching out and about disconnection.
Each story is deftly wrought and deeply intelligent. Sharma’s writing is full of short, declarative sentences, unassuming language and elegant prose. Though seemingly simple, there is a tender irony to his passages and a depth of feeling to his prose that is both deeply human and deeply humane. ‘The only possible explanation was that there was something in her that was weak and baffled, just like there was in me,’ thinks the protagonist in ’The Well’, a line that captures the unadorned nature of Sharma’s writing, and the warm sorrow of the lives he depicts.
All eight stories have previously been published by The New Yorker and the collection is arranged with an eye to thematic cohesion, even where the stories jump from the US to India and back. The title comes from the last line in one of the stories. A PhD student in the US, enthralled by sex workers and unable to find comfort in the ordinary, invites a prostitute to his home and, while standing and holding her breasts as she bounces up and down, thinks that he does indeed have a life of adventure and delight.
‘Cosmopolitan’ follows a recently divorced man’s attempts to woo his neighbour with the help of some advice from women’s magazines and ‘Surrounded by Sleep’ is a semi-autobiographical story (on which Family Life is based) about a boy bargaining with God (who first appeared to him as Krishna but later became Clark Kent) to save his brother after a swimming-pool related accident. ‘Are You Happy’ is one of the most devastating stories, following a boy living with his alcoholic mother and his father’s (and indeed, India’s) callous indifference.
‘If You Sing Like That for Me’ is the only story written from the point of view of a woman and sits right in the middle of the collection. It focuses on the early days of an arranged marriage and the bride, Anita, is alive with disappointment and determined optimism, with a wry candour and sharp reflection. ‘It was not that I expected to marry someone particularly handsome. I was neither pretty nor talented, and my family was not rich,’ she thinks. Her contempt for her husband is an answer to the contempt shown to women in the seven other stories (‘His stomach drooped. What an ugly man, I thought’) and the passages about physical intimacy, written with desire and yearning from the male perspective, are dismal from Anita’s. Anita notes, without emotion, every insult and slight, every time her husband talks and every time he doesn’t listen, every time he doesn’t see her. The story ends at a scene of sexual and emotional disconnection and compels the reader to reconsider the surrounding narratives, highlighting the ways in which the male protagonists in them also fail to see.
In all this heartache, Sharma is funny too. He writes of men anxiously watching YouTube videos to learn how to kiss, women hoarding cubes of cheese at a wedding, and the universality of in-group jokes – ‘he improvised on jokes he had read in ‘1,001 Polish Jokes.’ The Poles became Sikhs, but the rest remained the same.’ His genius is in the detail – ‘I went to Rutgers for college. I was fat. I didn’t know much about women. My father once told me, “Pavan, don’t be proud. Marry someone taller than you.”’
Sharma’s humour is subtle, much like his writing, and the quiet, underplayed nature of his commentary on Indian and American life lends his words a heft that they might not have in the hands of a more verbose writer. Made up of almost lovely banality intercut with moments of fleeting happiness, A Life of Adventure and Delight is both wry and unexpectedly tender. And it is very good.