Dealbreakers and other heartaches

Death by a Thousand Cuts: Stories
by Shashi Bhat

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2024
$24.95 / 9780771095115

Reviewed by Candace Fertile


Sadness pervades the nine stories in Shashi Bhat’s latest publication, sadness that often shifts to frustration and anger as the female characters face disappointments, in most cases because of men. Bhat’s work is thoroughly contemporary as it deals with the age-old problem of relationships. 

The first story, “Dealbreaker,” sets the tone for much of the book. Thirty-seven-year-old Asha wants a serious relationship with a man but has no plans for children. She’s using an app to find dates. The process seems like a series of job applications and interviews, or as the narrator puts it, “For Asha, a date is like a video game, or at least like the uncomplicated ones she played twenty-five years ago; she just wants to finish this level and make it to the next.” 

The third-person narrator makes it clear that Asha tries way too hard to be nice in her attempt to connect with John. After messaging for a few days, they meet in person and then go on to have a more formal date. It’s clear that John is no catch. He’s not even a plausible candidate for a relationship. But how are people supposed to meet potential partners? 

The title story explores another way of meeting a partner: college. The main character, like all of the collection’s main characters, is South Asian. Her boyfriend, Alex, is white, with remarkable blue eyes. 

Race and culture are features of Thousand Cuts, as is the significance of appearance. Alex, says the narrator’s father, is “too handsome” for her. At one point the young narrator investigates the possibility of changing her eye colour even though Alex frequently makes jokes that make her uncomfortable, such as saying that if they had children, “it would be harder to lose them in the snow.” Clearly, South Asian women in Canada and the US have the usual struggles of women compounded by issues of colour and culture. 

Appearance matters even when the woman has been married for a long time. In “Indian Cooking,” the narrator’s mother suffers serious facial burns while frying snacks. The narrator remarks, “Chakli are what she makes when other Indians are visiting our house and she wants to convince them that we are still as Indian as they are. On other days, we eat Triscuits.” The story combines the issues of performing cultural value through food and beauty. The mother is devastated by her painful burns, by both the physical torment and the grief at the loss of her beauty. 

Author Shashi Bhat (photo: Olivia Li)

New Westminster’s Bhat (The Most Precious Substance on Earth) offers a view of arranged marriage in “What You Can Live Without,” in which Aarthi, a recent graduate, loses her job when the nonprofit employing her collapses and she cannot find another. She has few savings, but does have parents living nearby in Surrey, and when she goes to visit them she discovers that they have a folder of potential husbands. But the parents aren’t forcing anything. Aarthi’s older sister had an arranged marriage, which is considered to be successful: her husband is a dentist and material security is important to the family. 

Aarthi attempted the arranged marriage route once before without a positive result, so she decides to try to find her own partner. She starts dating a guy whose life mission is to be as utterly frugal as possible. 

These stories open a view onto a world that will likely be very familiar to many women, whether they are South Asian or not, and there’s no doubt that South Asian women raised in Canada will be able to see elements of their own experiences. 

The isolation that apparently permeates today’s world is damaging on so many levels, and women seeking meaningful relationships, and in the case of these stories, South Asian women in particular, seem destined for failure. Death by a Thousand Cuts is a grimly fitting title.


Candace Fertile

Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room Magazine. [Editor’s note: Candace Fertile has reviewed books by Carleigh Baker, Kathryn Mockler, Lucia Frangione, Darcy Friesen Hossack, Robin Yeatman, Emi Sasagawa, Patti Flather, Peter Chapman, Janie Chang, Pauline Holdstock, Ava BellowsBeth KopeGeoff Inverarity, and Angélique Lalonde for BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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