The protagonist of Meet Us By the Roaring Sea lives in Queens in the not-too-distant future: far enough from now that a building built in the early 2000s is described as old, but not so far from now as to be unrecognizable. The protagonist works in AI and technology has advanced—people’s consumption patterns are monitored to generate a personal “carbon score” for everyone, and electronic payments happen via iris scans rather than through cell phones—but people are still grappling with the biases and ethics of technology and algorithms and data collection/data use. Meanwhile, the protagonist is translating a manuscript written in Tamil in the late 1990s, a work described as “a collective memoir, not fully fact or fiction, about a group of female medical students.” The narrative jumps between the future and the past, the protagonist and the manuscript. At work, the protagonist is training a new AI that feels different from past projects; at home, she throws herself into the translation because she needs something to do: we learn early in the book of her “mother’s sudden death, two months ago.” The protagonist notices this, about people she talks to at a “protest about data surveillance”: “They all had experienced a loss that they were still trying to shape in to something else.” Of course this applies to her, too, and to her childhood friend Sal, who is back in the neighborhood after a long time away. These plot strands intersect with another about the protagonist’s cousin Ros, who recently moved in with her. Ros is working on a new drug that’s being developed to treat Alzheimer’s, but that might have other uses as well; this plotline also includes a veteran who goes by Cheeze, who ends up living with the protagonist and Ros for a time. In the manuscript, the medical students are treating refugees—there is mention of “the Island” and “civil war” and because the text is in Tamil you know it’s Sri Lanka. The younger students, under the guidance of three older girls, are being tutored in “radical compassion.” The manuscript observes that the girls are “learning two different systems of knowledge, one structured by a clinical understanding of the body and the other ancient, known before knowing.” But it isn’t clear how to achieve radical compassion, or what exactly it might lead to, for the students in the manuscript or for the protagonist.
I like the way Kumarasamy writes, and there were aspects of this book I liked a lot—the protagonist and the manuscript, the protagonist and the AI, the protagonist and Sal. And I see where the pieces of the plot with Ros and Cheeze connect to ideas of memory and trauma and compassion. But I also felt like I wanted the book to have a tighter focus than it did.