In the boat called life | Review of ‘This is Salvaged’ by Vauhini Vara

Like her impressive first book, this collection of short stories too reflects the author’s perceptive gaze and inventive mind

February 02, 2024 09:20 am | Updated 09:49 am IST

Author Vauhini Vara

Author Vauhini Vara

Vauhini Vara’s debut, The Immortal King Rao, a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was, simply put, an amazing book. As a work of speculative fiction, it had an imagined world of impressive proportions. In This Is Salvaged, her second book, a collection of short stories firmly rooted in reality, Vara changes course, swapping the imagined for the real.

We encounter the main characters in these tales at a certain point in their lives, and in somewhat challenging circumstances. Quite a few of them carry emotional baggage of different kinds. They are flawed, vulnerable people, and it seems like their world is collapsing around them. However, the author directs a gentle compassionate gaze at them, shorn of both sentiment and judgement. The reader then feels compelled to view them through the same lens.

The central idea that runs through the stories seems to be that life is ephemeral and only the meaningful relationships you make matter. If one is unable to do that, then there is the risk of being cast adrift. There is a faint air of melancholy and sadness that hangs over the pieces here and the cleverly infused quiet humour in some accounts lends a touch of the bittersweet. There is loneliness and loss, and different ways of coping with it. Death, alcoholism and failed dreams appear; efforts are made by the characters to stay afloat in the face of this, to salvage situations as best as possible. But as the reader is not privy to how the future will pan out for these people, there wafts an air of poignancy over their narratives. 

Against the current

In any book of short stories, it is safe to say not all may be of the same quality. However, in this collection, almost all the stories are consistently good, which speaks volumes about the author’s skill. The title story, ‘This is Salvaged’, is the standout one, masterful in its minute, perceptive study of the protagonist; much is packed into and conveyed in the short format. 

Most of the voices in the narratives are those of women — women who are attempting to forge significant connections. Their reality is complicated and difficult. They are far from perfect. They are boats beating against the current. However, courage shines through in their attempts to claw out some sort of life. 

The language is affecting in many places. Like this line in one of the stories: ‘It’s cold down here in the kingdom of man. Let this one child’s heat warm a creature against the dying of her species.’ The author’s caring voice that marked her first book is evident here too. It is a publishing cliche to say an author has an ‘original voice’ especially when a new book is released. In Vara’s case, however, it was true of her first book and is definitely true of this one too. Hers is an assured, impressive and inventive voice. One can’t wait to read what she will come up with next.

This Is Salvaged
Vauhini Vara
Fourth Estate

The reviewer is a Bengaluru-based author, journalist and manuscript editor.

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