Eric A. Ponce

Review by

Shastri Akella’s debut novel is a momentous queer coming-of-age story that follows a 16-year-old boy in 1990s India. The Sea Elephants documents a life on the run, as Shagun seeks to discover himself and be free from the duties and delineations of gender and caste. 

As the novel opens, Shagun is mourning the recent death of his twin sisters when his unaccepting father suddenly returns home, bringing impossible standards along with him. In an attempt to escape his father, Shagun applies to a distant boarding school. When a traveling theater troupe visits the school and performs one of the myths that Shagun and his sisters loved when they were children, he decides that the best way to liberate himself from society and his father’s expectations is to live a bohemian life on the road, leading his story down a winding and wondrous path.

The most moving, frustrating and alluring part of The Sea Elephants is Shagun himself. Because of the torture he faces at the hands of his father and the grief he feels at the loss of his sisters, Shagun tells his story in a voice that is simultaneously clear and deeply confused. He falls for a series of beautiful boys and thinks about how to best harm his father; at the same time, he is often insightful and funny. For instance, when his father takes photos of Shagun urinating and shows them to him, saying that he is doing it in an improper, unmanly way, Shagun wonders what the person who developed the photos must have thought when he saw the final prints and handed them to his father. After Shagun joins the theater troupe, his descriptions of those first days are touching as he discovers a new way of living. Shagun’s journey eventually leads him to Marc, an American who falls for him after seeing him perform, which takes the novel down a more mature avenue. The couple’s squabbles provide plenty of hurdles until they attain something closer to love and joy.

Akella uses myth as the framework for The Sea Elephants, which allows Shagun’s story to feel ancient and sacred. The title comes from the myth of the sea elephants, whose ancestors were taken by the gods for their beauty, which leads their grieving patriarch to drown human children in return. This provides one of the central tensions of the novel, as Shagun questions why humans have to pay for the actions of their gods. As Shagun embodies myths through his performance, he takes his fate and the gods’ forces into his own hands, liberating himself from societal, bodily and metaphysical restraints. 

Debut novelist Shastri Akella uses myth as the framework for The Sea Elephants, which allows the coming-of-age story to feel ancient and sacred.
Review by

A girl from Zimbabwe finds new ways to read the stars in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s second novel after House of Stone (2019). When Athandwa Rosa Siziba is born in 1994, her astronomer father leaves her and her mother, traveling to the United States to participate in the Program, a mysterious and highly selective astrophysics program for radical and non-Western approaches to science.

Athandwa’s father finds great success at the Program and even takes a ride on a billionaire’s rocket into space. He teaches Athandwa to appreciate the beauty of the cosmos as well and eventually tries to bring her to the U.S. These plans fall apart when he returns to Zimbabwe with the intention of convincing Athandwa’s mother to let her move but is killed in a car crash. Over the next few years, Athandwa works hard and eventually gets accepted into the Program, where she can finally fulfill her father’s dreams of researching Indigenous astronomies and perhaps uncover the truth behind his death.

Tshuma writes beautifully about the stars and the people who watch them, mixing poetic prose with tangibly emotional descriptions. In the first part of the book, when Athandwa visits the U.S. and stays with her father and his new family (his new wife is a Haitian immigrant), Athandwa’s childish jealousy provides a hilarious and touching counterpoint to the vexing complexities of immigration. While her father tries to convince her mother to let Athandwa become a U.S. citizen, Athandwa mocks her stepmother and pinches her stepbrother, unsure where her anger is coming from but nonetheless expressing it—showing the depths of her displacement and her desire to belong. This palpable emotional confusion continues in the later parts of the book when Athandwa returns to the U.S. to join the Program. While she feels welcomed at first, she finds that her father’s reputation looms large, and soon she is forced to carve her own niche in astronomy while finding a way to continue honoring her father’s legacy.

The layered nature of Digging Stars allows readers to uncover new ideas and emotions well into the book. Between Athandwa’s desire to follow her father, the rejection she faces from American society and the distressing backdrop of a war-torn Zimbabwe, this book re-creates an intricate web of immigrant life. Tshuma traces multiple stories of family, immigration and self-discovery into a thrilling and beautiful constellation.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma writes beautifully about the stars and the people who watch them in her second novel, Digging Stars.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Features