Tuesday, March 21, 2023

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


I can’t recall exactly how this book ended up on my list, but must likely, it made the NPR recommendation list several years ago. (It was published in 2018.) I like to read contemporary short stories from time to time, and I have discovered a number of authors that way. 

I must say, this book was not at all like I expected. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was just….a lot different. 


Let me see if I can explain. Anjali Sachdeva is a young author, I assume of Indian-American descent. Biographical details are hard to come by - she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. (How is that even possible in 2023?) She apparently has been published in literary magazines, but hasn’t gone mainstream. She also teaches, and is an avid hiker who currently lives in Pittsburgh. 


Okay then, that isn’t that much to go on, but simply because of her youth, I was expecting certain sorts of stories. Also, first collections tend to be stories about what the author knows, at least in my experience. Perhaps, about a place and time like the author grew up in. 


Instead, the collection opens with a story, “The World By Night,” in a setting that Willa Cather would have used - the Great Plains of the 1800s. A pioneer woman is essentially abandoned by her husband, and takes refuge in a storm in a cave. She gets lost, and doesn’t emerge until some days later. She is repeatedly drawn to the cave until it becomes more real to her than the world above.


Next up is a story about Gilded Age immigrants. A man is badly disabled by an explosion in a glass factory, but finds a niche after his daughter marries a researcher. There is another story about how John Milton came write Paradise Lost. It is rather fanciful, and puts an interesting spin on his motivation. Another is a science fiction story about identical septuplets who essentially disintegrate in sequence over the years, as stretching one soul over seven bodies creates unsustainable thinness. 


You can see how all over the place this is already. 


There is the title story, which is about a group of girls kidnapped and raped by a Boko Harum sort of group - it ends with a really great revenge moment, both bloodless and devastating. It also has a great passage that is perceptive about the human response to terrible things.


We had nights where we did not fight back the little bit we could have, where we did not even say, “Please, no,” and where we imagined a new life that went something like this: Go along, praise Allah, have clean clothes and enough to eat, raise some militant’s baby like any other woman raising a baby, forget about how it all started. When these things have never happened to you, you think, I would rather die. But the truth is that it is not so easy to decide to die. And when, suddenly, you have the option to live again, that is not so easy either.


There is another science fiction story about aliens who take over the planet, and require humans to have their hands replaced with metal ones, perhaps to avoid the death that contact with the aliens causes. It too raises the question of how far any of us would be willing to go - what is actually worth dying for and not?


A story about a mermaid is in there too - a kind of magical realism sort of narrative, but also about unrequited love. 


The final one I want to mention is “Logging Lake.” The name comes from a mountain lake in Glacier National Park, which we visited last summer. (We didn’t hike to Logging Lake, though.) The basic idea of the story is that a man has just broken up with his long-time partner, in part because she finds him too boring and unwilling to take risks. He then decides to just take every risk he can, and remake himself. 


This results in him hooking up with a legitimately crazy woman, who talks him into backpacking in Glacier, far too early in the season, and unprepared with even a wilderness permit. Yeah, this will end well, right? As the narrator notes, everything seemed to surprise her when it came to backpacking - even though he is the novice.


Amazingly, they do not freeze to death, or get bothered by a grizzly that is active at the lake. (Which they shouldn’t have camped at - like other unprepared hikers, they tried to go too far, and had to stop when it got dark.) 


But then, when he wakes up the next morning, she is gone. And I mean gone - search and rescue never finds her, at least within the year after the incident. It’s a crazy story, and he is kind of lucky to be able to avoid suspicion for murder. Fortunately for him, telling the truth means it is easy to keep your story straight, and the fact that the police were unable to find any information about her past, friends, or family was in his favor. 


Ironically, this unexpected and unexplained event ends up putting him back together with his ex. Somehow, the trauma has both changed him and made him more attractive to her. 


This is just a taste of the nine stories in this book. As I said, they range greatly in time, setting, and style. Perhaps, though, they are united by a few themes. I saw loneliness and alienation in each story. And also a sense of fate being inescapable, even though it is noble to fight back. 


The stories are well written, and conceptually interesting. None of them felt expected, which is a testament to the author’s imagination. If you like the short story form, and want to go to some unusual places, give this book a try. 


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