Today, we are proud to feature a review of Akil Kumarasamy’s debut Half Gods by our very own Will Preston. Kumarasamy’s debut follows the different members of a Sri Lankan family who flee their country’s civil war and resettle in New Jersey. Preston writes: “Indeed, Half Gods gains its emotional resonance not only from its characters’ nuanced internal lives, but from the cumulative effect of stacking these narratives next to each other. The result is a subtle and complex book that requires and rewards a reader’s attention, one that feels less like a group of individual stories and more like a sweeping family epic in disguise.”
Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy
Every few years, somebody resurrects the old debate over whether reading books can increase a person’s empathy. On the one hand, researchers at The New School and the University of Toronto have conducted studies that suggest that, yes, projecting ourselves into the lives of fictional characters makes us more sensitive toward others. On the other, as essayist Teju Cole has observed, no less than the Nazis harbored a deep admiration for high culture, and Barack Obama’s love for Marilynne Robinson did not stop him from launching drone strikes throughout the Middle East.
I thought of this debate while reading Akil Kumarasamy’s captivating story collection Half Gods, which follows a single Sri Lankan family as they flee their country’s bloody civil war to seek asylum in New Jersey. This massive displacement echoes sharply down the family line, from Muthu, the aging patriarch who grew up on a Sri Lankan tea plantation in the 1950s, to his daughter Nalini, to her two American-born sons, Arjun and Karna. Theirs is a story irrevocably marked by loss and unbelonging, a slow, steady undercurrent of pain that leaves them as emotionally estranged from their new home as they are from their old.