Coffee House Press / Emily’s Books ($16.95)
by Bradley Babendir
Maya, the main character of Jade Sharma’s debut novel Problems, has a lot going wrong in her life. Her marriage isn’t working, she isn’t making much money, she hasn’t made progress on her thesis, and she is addicted to heroin. At different points throughout the novel, each of these problems becomes the central focus, which helps the book feel as though it constitutes some sort of revolution in addiction narratives.
There is no skirting the fact that Maya is an addict, but Sharma is deft at displaying exactly how that alters her life. Yes, getting clean would be a good idea and likely improve the prospects in her life immensely, but getting clean won’t make her love her husband or write her thesis. She’ll begin to save more money, but that does not guarantee financial security, either. In Problems, drug addiction is a problem for Maya, and like all other problems, it has its own set of unique obstacles, but that doesn’t make it the defining issue of all moments of her life.
For example, one of the longer sections of the book involves Maya visiting her husband’s family, heroin free. Her withdrawal causes problems, but so does the fact that Peter’s family doesn’t approve of smoking and she is hankering for a cigarette. Their divergent views on what’s appropriate to watch and talk about similarly cause rifts.
None of this is to say that Sharma backs away from the tough reality of addiction. Just as space is given to the ways Maya’s life would be regardless, there is acknowledgement of the problems that her drug use brings, and there are many. The descriptions of her withdrawal are agonizing and the lengths she goes to for money in a crisis are simultaneously shocking and inevitable.
Sharma’s prose is plain and unflinching, leveraging the brutality of the narrative to its full effect—the author seems uninterested in adding a little stevia to make the book easier to stomach. Her only flourish is occasionally diving into the second person, an effective tool when it is used, as it implies Maya’s impulse to distance her actions from herself.
Problems is short enough to read in a weekend afternoon, but it might be tough to go out for drinks right after. There is hope scattered throughout and at the end, but it is less pronounced than the dread, desperation, and the unsettling sex scenes. Perhaps Sharma’s biggest achievement is allowing these things to coexist in such a well-constructed package. There are laugh-out-loud moments and there are moments where a deep breath is necessary before moving forward. Even after finishing, the images are hard to shake.
Once the haze of the initial reading fades away, though, one is mostly left with excitement: about whatever Sharma writes next, and whatever Emily’s Books, the new imprint from Coffee House Press, publishes next. Few debuts manage to be as forceful and commanding as this one.