In her 2018 short story collection Half Gods, Akil Kumarasamy drew upon both the imagined and the real in her intricately crafted tales of the Sri Lankan diaspora, whose characters were haunted by the impact of the Tamil genocide. In Meet Us by the Roaring Sea, her debut novel, we feel the same hauntedness and the impact of things both real and imagined, albeit in starkly different contexts. Combining artificial intelligence, long-held grief, reality television, a translated manuscript, and numerous other motifs, this book highlights Kumarasamy’s excellent prose but holds the characters at arm’s length. This leads to a novel of extraordinary ideas, but feels lacking in cohesion and clarity.
Our unnamed protagonist lives in an unspecified future and works for a company specializing in Artificial Intelligence, while translating a Tamil manuscript about the lives of first year medical students in South India. The character is not of Tamil origin, and chose the language on a whim during her college courses, and this fact alone challenged me as reader. To see South Asian languages viewed with the same intellectual curiosity as Greek or Latin, adopted by those outside of the diaspora, felt wholly unique and intriguing from the very beginning.
Further complicating our protagonist’s life is the death of her mother, and living in her mother’s house, surrounded by memory and her possessions. She lives with a cousin, Rosalyn, who displays an almost obsessive interest in a reality show from the novel’s past, Soldier’s Diaries. These relationships are sketched out as fraught from the beginning, a tenuous balance that is only disrupted as the novel progresses.
With this stockpiling of potential conflict, the book meanders into past and present. We encounter questions as to the ethics of AI and its looming power in a “postcolonial” world. We watch family relationships and friendships fall apart and coalesce. All the while we are held distant from our protagonist, not even down to knowing her name, but by simply observing her passivity in all aspects of life. She describes herself as “highly proficient” with “little ambition,” and this lackadaisical attitude maintains tension, but does not propel the narrative in a meaningful way.
Indeed, the most forward motion we get is in the snippets of the translated manuscript. Seventeen Tamil students are undergoing medical training in the midst of a historic drought, and as they suffer they adopt a philosophy of “radical compassion,” the principle that draws our narrator to their story in the first place. As their cheeks hollow out and paranoia ensues, we are invested in their slow decline and the physical and mental suffering they endure. There is a horror to their experience we intensely feel, and it is a horror that might be mirrored in the main narrative, but rarely surfaces in a similar way.
While the novel features a broad cast of characters, few prove memorable. We get to know Cheeze, a former subject of Soldier’s Diaries and his sudden decline in the midst of PTSD. Socrates, the narrator’s Tamil instructor, is another standout, though he only appears through correspondence. But other names appear and reappear with little impact, themes as well. While individually these ideas could stand as books on their own, such as the efforts of translation or the hopelessness of progress, reading a novel peppered with these ideas without significant payoff felt ultimately frustrating.
Most potent in the novel is the pervasive nature of the narrator’s grief. By living in her mother’s house and surrounding herself with even the most meaningless of possessions, grief simply cannot progress. We are introduced to the idea of Cheeze’s presence in the house and the translation of the manuscript as kinds of atonement, but these ideas are rarely pushed to the forefront. Indeed, so little is explored about the narrator’s inner life beyond what she chooses to share, that it is difficult to become invested in her many conflicts. The undercurrent of AI technology fizzles out, although we are confronted by the double edged sword of progress through Rosalyn’s academic interests and the narrator’s own conflicted moral standing. Any one of these thoughts could comprise a novel on its own, but in the span of sub-300 pages we are meant to fully grasp and bring together all these ideas as a reader, and the parts simply do not coalesce.
There is much to Meet Us by the Roaring Sea that does not meet the eye, and this is a book that commands a greater focus and closer attention than I anticipated as a reader. And while individual passages shimmer and terrify, the book as a whole leaves dangling threads that go beyond the unanswered questions of thought-provoking narrative. We never truly comprehend our protagonist, just as our protagonist rarely seems to comprehend the world around her.
Meet Us by the Roaring Sea
by Akil Kumarasamy
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Published August 23, 2022
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms