If the purpose of a novel is to transport you to a different world, live a different reality, and understand a different person while entertaining you and holding your attention, All This Could Be Different does all this and more.

This is America in recession after the financial meltdown of 2008. This is chilly Milwaukee in a pre-Uber era. The person in front of us is a carless young, Indian-American lesbian in search of livelihood, love, and a green card sponsor. Her coterie of friends makes this world complete. The writing brings to life a world that is funny and at times dark and leaves you with a sense of loss when the book ends.

All This Could Be Different is Sarah Thankam Mathews’s debut novel. It was shortlisted for the 2022 Discover Prize, 2022 National Book Award in Fiction, and the Aspen Words Literary Prize. It was also a New York Times Editor’s Choice and named was praised generously by the Los Angeles Times, NPR, Slate, Time, Vogue, Vulture, and Buzzfeed. Phew!

I picked up the book to get to know Mathews. – hoping she might teach for us one day. Her social/activism work – she’s done much besides write – made me even more curious.

Is this real life?

Mathews has written All This Could Be Different in the first person, so it feels very real, connected. I felt I was reading a memoir, not fiction.

You notice a few things as soon as the book begins. Dialogue is written without quotation marks. It takes about two pages to get used to it. The book is full of tight, apt descriptions. SUVs are “American cars that looked like they had been bred with trucks”. The interior of a restaurant is “cosy, pungent, plant-studded, pink as organs.” A nodding Malayali mom is “wobbling her head like a dashboard dog.”

The characters come to life. Thom and Tig became my friends, not just friends of the protagonist. The ultra noise-sensitive neighbour is someone I feel I have met, and abhorred. The world of Milwaukee in the pre-Uber era is a revelation. America’s car dependence, and the haplessness of one who doesn’t drive – come to the fore.

The storyline kept me wanting to learn what happened next. The short, unexpected one-liners kept me reading, looking for the next one.

The world of a young Indian “dyke” – a word freely used in the book – was new to me. As I read, I slowly understood what it must mean to be one in America. The book takes you from highs – when the lead character is on a roll professionally – to lows which are hard and unexpected. But you stay with Sneha – the protagonist – all the way through. I began rooting for her from the very beginning.

I felt miserable when she was down, pained when she was jilted, frustrated when she acted stupidly, and joyful when she finally received what was due to her. The only place where I felt a tad unconvinced was the response of the Indian parents to discovering their daughter’s sexual orientation. But maybe I am just old-fashioned.

New possibilities

A lot of the book is about possibilities and choices, and how friends often steer – or try to steer – one another along paths that they feel are better. But what makes the novel stand out is that it doesn’t try too hard. It worked for me because it spoke many truths that resonated. Often, I felt those truths were more relevant to immigrants. There were lines that made me stop and reread. I often had to put down the book and take a few moments to process what was written on the page, digest it. Lines like, “I did not know how to explain this stubborn love for my parents that I staggered under, iridescent and gigantic and veined with the terrible grief, grief for the ways their lives had been compost for my own.”

This is a book in which friendship matters more than love. Where the pain of seeking an elusive true love is great, but the solace from having great friends to cushion that pain is even greater. That, to me, made All This Could Be Different really special.

The language of the young American was also a revelation. I realised that a “hoe” is something besides a farm implement. Ever since I read this book I’ve been calling my 15-year-old daughter “my dude”. She finds it funny, and I feel a lot younger.

When was the last time a book did that for you?

All This Could Be Different: A Novel, Sarah Thankam Mathews, Viking.

Chetan Mahajan writes articles, short stories, non-fiction, and novels. He runs a blog too. He spent a month in jail and wrote a memoir about it. Chetan co-founded the Himalayan Writing Retreat in 2016. This dog lover has survived seven dog bites and is equally patient with humans, especially his students.