August 2023

The Sea Elephants

By Shastri Akella
Review by
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.
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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. 

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The Sea Elephants

The Sea Elephants

By Shastri Akella
ISBN 9781250867056

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