By Saba Sams
It is not very often that one comes across a book that is astonishingly honest and spectacularly authentic. Send Nudes by Saba Sams is such a book, a collection of 10 short stories of varying lengths, that examine life from girlhood to womanhood in no particular order.
The stories are distinct and unordinary; the characters are woven with such tenderness that one feels the genuineness of each voice. With remarkable originality and striking wit, their 25-year-old British writer celebrates the complexities of being female in the post-modern world.
Out of the 10 pieces in the collection, some might qualify more as flash fiction rather than short stories. The topics range from body positivity, body image, fostering children, uneven friendships, awkwardly blended families, carefree mothers, and what it is to be in the treacherous landscape of growing up. The underlying theme connecting them is the human need for companionship and love, and Sams communicates this message delicately and consciously.
In the first story, ‘Tinderloin’, Sams manages to fill the void for teenage love with love for a pet dog. It is intriguing to see how the author lays out the complex emotions of a 16-year-old girl, trusted and loved by her father, as she falls for an older man. What the girl is really looking for, though, is companionship, and she finds it in her camaraderie with her older paramour’s dog. It is a strange story, but the author’s handling of it with expert care makes it successful.
A collection of short stories examines girlhood and womanhood with tenderness, originality and genuine wit
‘Snakebite’ is a saga of imbalanced infatuation between friends. Lara, intoxicated by the power of her own beauty, uses it to her maximum advantage. Meg, on the other hand, finds herself dealing with the difficult emotions that come with adulthood and the confusion of finding space between responsibility and irresponsibility.
In ‘Flying Kite’, foster children find warmth in each other’s company even as they are unkindly tossed aside by their birth families. ‘Here Alone’ takes us to meet Emily who finds herself attracted to Toby, a banker who takes an interest in her. Thinking that what she is feeling is love, she obsesses over him, only to be disillusioned when she finds out she’s being used to get the attention of Toby’s ex.
‘Blue 4eva’ tells of a newly blended family, with 12-year-old Stella seeking the approval of her new, older stepsister Jasmine on a family trip. Accompanying them is Jasmine’s best friend Blue, who, much to Jasmine’s disdain, finds Stella interesting.
‘Overnight’ is heart-breaking, a distressing depiction of sexual assault told through struggling moments of the past and present. As for ‘Send Nudes’, the book’s namesake, it is shorter than the others and tells of a girl who, struggling with how people perceive her body, is unable to “send nudes”. While witty, it must be said that this is one of the less engaging pieces in the collection.
Sams manages to keep the reader hooked with no need for suspense or urgency in her writing. Her stories flow with no particular intention and yet, towards the end of each, one feels the need to keep reading.
The tales do not have the standard beginning, middle and end; instead, they end in the middle or, at times, even begin in the middle. In terms of technique, there are some non-linear narratives that jump back and forth between times and the author accomplishes this without making use of flashbacks.
I’d decided not to tell him about the pregnancy, but the first time I visited after I miscarried, I could tell that Petal knew. She climbed up on the bed and put her head in my lap. I scratched her behind the ears with my good hand and she smiled with her tongue spilling out her mouth. This was the first time we’d ever really acknowledged each other. — Excerpt from ‘Tinderloin’
Imagery is one of Sams’s strengths and so is the dazzling dialogue that she crafts with sensitivity, and to her advantage. The sharp wit and humour of some of the stories make the reader smile, even chuckle at instances. Her style is very similar to the cult-followed Irish novelist Sally Rooney, who made waves in the Young Adult genre with Conversations with Friends, Normal People and Beautiful World, Where Are You. But innovation in prose is not what Sams is here to establish. Rather, her stories, much like Rooney’s, deal with social stigmas and coming-of-age concepts of sexuality.
As a collection, Send Nudes is unmistakably youthful, brimming with vibrancy and curiosity. We are able to see earnest points of vulnerability in almost all of the characters, each one so dissimilar yet familiar. The writer’s superpower seems to be gathering an entire backstory into a single paragraph and, without using unnecessary details, introducing the cast of characters diligently and precisely.
Her stories are exhilarating, perplexing yet healing. She captures the determined intensity of teenage years with sharp intuition and careful deliberation. Her exploration of micro-dynamics in relationships works to her advantage. Her protagonists are often females seemingly wanting approval from someone else, yet they manage to assert control and flip the narrative back to themselves. They are not immune to existential crises, but they carry on.
But, while the stories are all well-wrought, one sees almost no progression or regression of voice. The narrative could be from a perspective as young as nine years old, or from a grown woman, but the commentary remains consistent. Of course, it is alright for a debut author to stick to what they know, but it may quickly turn into a slippery slope. It is fortunate that Sams’s emotive and perceptive writing saves her book from such a fate.
The title, however, seems unnecessarily attention-seeking. It is merely a phrase from one of the less notable stories, unremarkable and unrepresentative of the beautiful collection that the book is as a whole.
The cover, too, doesn’t do much to invite the reader or insinuate any special attraction. Thankfully, when one does pick up the book, one forgets the insipidity of the jacket or the dubiety of the title and becomes fully immersed in the genuineness of the writer’s masterful delivery and astute attention to detail.
Fragile, euphoric and slightly chaotic, Send Nudes is a collection not to be missed. The stories are traumatic yet exuberant, lively yet disheartening, but one thing is for sure: they leave a mark and will not easily be forgotten.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 29th, 2023