Problems – Jade Sharma
Release Date: 12/07/2016
Publisher: Coffee House Press
Pages: pp 180 RRP: £11.99 (Paperback)
Kindle version available here (£6.02)
Heroin addiction is a topic that has been covered in graphic detail many times before. Whether in the works of Burroughs or Welsh, it’s been the focus of some bold literature over the years, with one key glaring issue: the protagonists are almost always white. Jade Sharma’s debut novel, Problems, takes a look at heroin addiction from the perspective of a young Indian woman with a dark sense of humour and severe body image issues, offering a unique perspective that offers some interesting insight on this subject matter.
Maya’s narrative is a very blunt and honest one. She starts the novel by openly admitting that her life is a mess – her marriage to her husband Peter is a hollow shell, she’s having an affair with her former professor, Ogden (if only to keep her life as she sees it interesting), and she’s a ‘part-time’ heroin user. Her dark wit isn’t afraid to focus on the graphic horrors of what her addiction does to her body, her dysfunctional approach to her job, or her increasingly bold sexual interests (Sharma has mentioned that audiences seemed more shocked by this than anything else). From this starting point, we watch as Maya’s life begins to disintegrate – though based on how the novel is structured, what we’re actually seeing is essentially a prolonged monologue; one long piece of character development, rather than any kind of traditional plot structure. In choosing to structure the novel like this, Sharma ensures that drug addiction isn’t something to be sensationalised by Maya – it becomes something almost mundane at times. Even her attempts to get clean simply feel like just another part of her life. Despite all her efforts to push people away (even the reader at times), Maya ultimately feels alive – something which, given the focus of the novel, would have been no easy task for the author.
Sharma crafts some great little moments of black comedy and turns of phrase during the course of the novel – a prolonged section of the novel involving Maya having to suffer through Thanksgiving at her in-laws’ is particularly memorable. Her choice to focus more on the day-to-day survival within the spiral of addiction, rather than any singular overt spectacle, gives the novel a more personable feel, allowing the reader to become more easily attached to Maya and her struggle. Whilst there are sections where the focus on self-degradation (such as through an escalating series of increasingly depraved Craigslist hookups) can perhaps feel a bit excessive, they ultimately feel like a culmination of Maya’s distorted image of herself, and seeming desire for punishment, and thus a key part of her journey.
Overall, I’d recommend giving this a look. Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the blurb’s description of this being ‘Girls meets Trainspotting‘ (something which is a personal marketing pet peeve of mine – that and Maya just doesn’t seem to fit the image that description conjures), Sharma’s take on this topic was surprisingly refreshing (Fusion.net have a great interview with her which is worth reading). Despite feeling that the novel’s ending could perhaps have been expanded upon, if only to see more of Maya’s story, Problems has left me curious to see what Jade Sharma does next, and grateful for her fresh perspective on this subject.