Author: Anjali Sachdeva
My Rating: 5/5 Stars
Anjali Sachdeva’s debut short story collection, All the Names They Used for God, is a diverse and outstanding collection of nine stories that range from mystical realism to speculative science fiction. While these stories cover a broad range of topics, I felt they all fit appropriately into this volume and they were all standouts. Sachdeva, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who has taught writing at a variety of colleges, is an excellent storyteller and her writing style really left me feeling engaged and entranced.
The World by Night – A strong opener, this short told the story of a half-blind woman living on the frontier of early America. When her husband leaves to find work, she is left feeling lonely and sad, but quickly discovers a cave entrance on her land and begins to venture into the cave system. She feels alive in the caves as her lack of perfect sight is made up for by an enhanced sense of touch and smell. The ending was phenomenal and overall this was a story about lost dreams, the fragility of relationships and how we search for purpose wherever we can. A beautiful story that almost felt like a dream; hope and hopelessness are both found here.
Glass-Lung – Probably my least favorite story in the collection, this one is about an immigrant steel worker who is raising a daughter by himself. Things are going well until an accident at work leaves him permanently disabled. It was my least favorite because the plot was a little dull, but Sachdeva still touches on some interesting themes here. As someone who spent four years working in a factory and hearing stories of people getting seriously hurt, I felt this man’s pain at losing everything and going from someone who takes care of his daughter to having her take care of him. The idea of one’s life purpose is a strong theme here and is explored through the lens of the main character, his daughter and the man she falls in love with (an archaeologist trying to make a name for himself). This story also addresses the ideas of love, loss and again that clash of hope vs hopelessness.
Logging Lake – An interesting commentary on modern relationships, this story tells the tale of Robert, a man recently left by his long time girlfriend who decided she wanted more out of life than him. After wallowing in sadness, he meets an adventurous woman named Terri and she invites him on a poorly planned backpacking trip in the Washington wilderness. I really liked this one because I felt it was an accurate portrayal of one of the biggest problems people come across in relationships – that difference in opinion as to the purpose of life. After the breakup Robert tries to reinvent himself and here Sachdeva brings to light the idea that sometimes we need to just accept who we are because changing ourselves for others usually won’t make us any happier. As the story progresses there is a beautiful meshing of magical realism and then in the end Sachdeva asks the reader to decide what defines happiness and a healthy relationship. Did Robert find it or is it all an illusion?
Killer of Kings – I didn’t know who John Milton was before I read this story. It is about an old poet who has lost his sight and an angel visits him to help him write his masterpiece – Milton’s Paradise Lost. As I read this I was a bit confused as to the point, but after reading up on Milton and his work it made a lot more sense. I enjoyed reading her take on Milton’s development from childhood to adulthood and how his work as a writer was an important tool in political revolt. The culmination of his work with the angel leads to an interesting ending which, considering the content of Paradise Lost, was very fitting.
All the Names for God – The story which gives the collection its name is based on the true life tragedy that saw a group of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The fictionalized plot follows two of these girls through their slavery and into forced marriages with their abductors. As the plot progresses it begins to intertwine with magic and it is revealed that the two girls have found a way to free themselves and ultimately get revenge on the men who took away so many years of their lives. This one was obviously strongly centered around loss and how people cope with tragedy. The magical twist was interesting.
Robert Greenman and the Mermaid – In my opinion, this was one of the best stories in the collection. A New England fisherman named Robert is by all accounts happy. He has a wife who he is very much in love with, he has managed to stay away from the bottle and he enjoys his work even though it is providing diminishing returns. On one fateful voyage into the sea Robert spots a mermaid and suddenly life loses its luster and he quickly spirals into depression when not near the mermaid. Touching on themes of unhealthy emotional attachment, the human psyche and life/death, this one was one of the most memorable for me.
Anything You Might Want – A story about a man indebted to a Montana magnate and the magnate’s daughter (the protagonist). When the two fall in love and run away together, things quickly crumble and the woman is left to fend for herself in rural Florida. She quickly finds a place for herself in that society and establishes a life there, only to find herself face-to-face again with the man who left her. While there was nothing thematically special here (grass is greener, passionate love never lasts, don’t rely on other for happiness, etc…) the characters were well written and I stayed engaged in the story until the end. I liked the way it all wrapped up.
Manus – What if large fungal blobs invaded Earth and left things pretty much the same, but demanded that everyone replace their hands with metal appendages – aptly nicknamed ‘forks’? This was an interesting take on the typical alien invasion trope and brought up an interesting commentary on rebellion, loss, and again hope. Above all, this story was about fighting oppression and for that reason alone I liked it. The ending was strange and I honestly had to reread the last couple pages to make sure I understood it correctly. In the end it left me wondering if the form of rebellion humans have adapted here is worth the loss? Is it actually preferable to simply losing your hands? I think the answer will depend on your view of totalitarianism, but this story certainly left me thinking.
Pleiades – Two scientists decide to create septuplets through in vitro fertilization – one egg that would become seven baby girls. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but this one was definitely the most heartbreaking of the collection. This one touches heavily on tragic loss, familial bonds, our will to live and humanity’s sometimes irresponsible use of science. A powerful story and a great ending to the collection. One of my favorites and one that will stick with me.
Overall, I really really enjoyed this collection. A lot of reviewers have stated that the stories didn’t fit together in one volume, but I think the thing that ties them all together is that battle between hope and hopelessness which was a major theme in every story. Sure, Sachdeva touches on a lot of other themes and the stories are all different, but that is what makes a good story collection in my opinion. Let me know what your thoughts are below!