« I I don’t know if I was enjoying myself or just constantly curious, » says Meg in Snakebite, one of 10 short stories in 25-year-old British author Saba Sams’ extraordinary debut collection. Sams joins the ranks of writers like Megan Nolan and Frances Leviston with these astute portraits of the fragile intimacies and moments of euphoria whisked into precarious futures by a generation of women coming of age.
The first story in the collection, Tinderloin, was shortlisted for the 2019 White Review Short Story Prize; the second, Overnight, was published by Sally Rooney in the literary journal The Stinging Fly; and the third, Snakebite, was recently shown in Granta. Sams’ characters navigate the gaps between expectation and reality that arise as adulthood advances – busy parents, uneven friendships, misleading kisses. Set against a backdrop of grimy pubs, music festivals and yoga yurts, these fun, surprising stories unfold, articulating the wonder and disillusionment that comes with pushing new boundaries.
Sams excels at working out the microdynamics of relationships: crushes, rivalries, hierarchies. In Snakebite, a relentless tale of one-sided attraction, rudderless college student Meg falls into the reckless orbit of Lara, drunk on the compelling power of her own beauty. Their transformative friendship — « I understood I was her project » — turns toxic, but Meg is helplessly complicit in her own exploitation.
This story is echoed in Blue 4eva, about a newly blended family’s vacation on a Balearic island. Twelve-year-old Stella seeks the approval of Blue, her older stepsister’s friend, a magnetic alpha who basks in Stella’s admiration and, like Lara, enjoys exerting her influence at the expense of others. Similarly, in The Mothers and the Girls, two 13-year-olds vie for the attention of an older boy who seems to have all the cards in his hands. But time and time again, the young women of Sams turn the tables by rejecting victimhood, stepping on the wrong foot, embracing independence, or just picking themselves up and moving on.
Their experiences are often shaped by their bodies, a power source that can also be armed against them: « cracked like a nut, » as in the sexual assault recalled by Maxine in Overnight. In the Send Nudes cover story, the protagonist is a slave to dieting and shapewear. The prose is steeped in her shame — « Her hair is wet against her forehead and slaps like a strip of raw bacon » — until she’s sharing nude selfies on an anonymous messaging app and feels something of liberation.
Topics such as pregnancy and self-harm are treated without sentimentality or squeamishness. When Grace miscarries on Tinderloin, her comfort is not in her boyfriend in the wet blanket but in his dog’s growing devotion. You never feel like Sams is « investigating an issue »; Rather, each story presents the textured fabric of ordinary life, woven from wry observation, psychological insight, and outspoken Gen Z dialogue.
As digital natives who grew up on Snapchat and Tinder, Sams’ characters are largely indifferent to sex. In Here Alone, the seduction starts out like a game for Emily – « that was her favorite part: exchanging signs » – but she loses control. The following tale of delusional desire and casual male cruelty nails rejection with piercing clarity. The family offers little safety net as distressed parents have an extended adolescence of their own. The roles are reversed: one daughter tries to shield her drunk mother from social services, another builds a comforting beach in a high-rise apartment when the pandemic shatters a long-awaited vacation.
In tight, rhythmic movements, this exciting collection captures the light and dark of relationship negotiations, loneliness, sexuality and loss. Sams appropriates the language and conjures up haunting imagery that etches itself in your mind, just as her characters are scarred by trauma even as they rebound.
What sets her apart from millennial writers like Ottessa Moshfegh, who shares her deadpan humor and visceral style, is that her characters aren’t jaded, they’re insatiable. They’re not immune to existential angst — « Do you ever worry that nothing you do matters? » — but they go on living and devour new experiences with gusto. Does this herald a tonal shift in twenty-something fiction? It’s too early to tell, but it’s that earthy resilience and zest for life that makes Send Nudes so rare and uplifting.