Akil Kumarasamy's first book, "Half Gods," was a linked story collection revolving around two Tamil brothers. The complexity of the work emerges subtly as the narratives progress, as the scope widens to include numerous characters, varied terrains and even a crash course on the Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka. But for all that book's prodigious skill and deft structure, readers of "Half Gods" will not be prepared for the uncanny brilliance of her first novel, "Meet Us by the Roaring Sea."
For starters, it takes place in the near future and grapples with all manner of dystopic categories. A young woman who develops artificiaI-intelligence tech works on a project that seems to understand more than she's designing it to. In this vision of the United States, each citizen is given a "carbon score," and if they go over their allotment, they receive a fine.
The protagonist's roommate and cousin experiments with using an Alzheimer's drug — which extracts memories from people via a hair sample and feeds it back to them — to help a war veteran with his PTSD.
This narrative is juxtaposed with a manuscript that the AI engineer is translating. Set on an island municipality of India in the late 1990s, the text tells the story of "a group of female medical students, all them under the age of twenty-one, not quite doctors or mystics." The students develop what they call "radical compassion," an approach to healing meant to teach the girls to embrace suffering, relinquish their egos and "reach a new consciousness to be of any use." Their unity in vying for a better way of helping eventually breaks into sects at odds with one another.
If moving back and forth between the near future and a manuscript by an unknown author weren't complex enough, Kumarasamy employs rarely used points of view to tell these stories. The former is told in second person ("You sleep only for a few hours … ") and the latter is written in first-person plural ("We were learning two different systems of knowledge").
Other novels have used these techniques — Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City" is famously in second person, and Hannah Pittard's "The Fates Will Find Their Way" uses first-person plural — but the dexterous oscillation of both unusual tactics is particularly rare. Moreover, it's a very difficult feat to pull off, and Kumarasamy does so with gusto.
The protagonist's "you" creates both intimacy and distance between reader and character. You — as in, you the reader — are experiencing, linguistically, the plot as if you were moving through it; yet at the same time the character takes a back seat, giving her narration a kind of muted melancholy, which is fitting since just before the novel begins, she discovers her mother's dead body, the grief pervading her actions throughout.
If this all sounds difficult to imagine or, just as likely, difficult to digest, you are not wrong. "Meet Us by the Roaring Sea" is a brazenly complex, labyrinthinely structured, deeply philosophical, thematically ambitious novel, and although it may not be the breeziest read, it is also a masterpiece that more than confirms the promise of "Half Gods." Kumarasamy is one of more exciting young fiction writers at work right now.
Jonathan Russell Clark is the author of "An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom" and the forthcoming "Skateboard."
Meet Us by the Roaring Sea
By: Akil Kumarasamy.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $27.