Send Nudes by Saba Sams review – sex and solitude

“I don’t know if I was enjoying myself or just in a continual state of curiosity,” says Meg in Snakebite, one of 10 short stories in 25-year-old British author Saba Sams’s exceptional debut collection. Sams joins the ranks of writers such as Megan Nolan and Frances Leviston with these acute portraits of the fragile intimacies and euphoric moments snatched by a generation of women coming of age into a precarious future.

The first story in the collection, Tinderloin, was shortlisted for the White Review short story prize in 2019; the second, Overnight, was published by Sally Rooney in the literary magazine The Stinging Fly; and the third, Snakebite, has recently featured in Granta. Sams’s characters navigate the gaps between expectation and reality that emerge with encroaching adulthood – preoccupied parents, uneven friendships, misleading kisses. Unfolding against a backdrop of grimy pubs, music festivals and yoga yurts, these funny, surprising stories articulate the wonder and disillusionment that go hand in hand with testing new boundaries.

Sams excels at teasing out the micro-dynamics of relationships: crushes, rivalries, hierarchies. In Snakebite, an inexorable tale of lopsided attraction, rudderless student Meg gets caught up in the reckless orbit of Lara, who is drunk on the coercive power of her own beauty. Their transformative friendship – “I understood that I was her project” – turns toxic, yet Meg is helplessly complicit in her own exploitation.

This story has echoes in Blue 4eva, about a newly blended family’s holiday on a Balearic island. Twelve-year-old Stella seeks approval from Blue, her older stepsister’s friend, a magnetic alpha who basks in Stella’s admiration and, like Lara, enjoys flexing her influence at others’ expense. Similarly, in The Mothers and the Girls, two 13-year-olds vie for the attention of an older boy who seems to hold all the cards. Yet repeatedly, Sams’s young women turn the tables, rejecting victimhood, wrongfooting presumption, embracing independence, or simply picking themselves up and moving on.

Their experiences are often shaped by their bodies, a source of power that can also be weaponised against them: “cracked open” like a nut, as in the sexual assault Maxine recalls in Overnight. In the title story, Send Nudes, the protagonist is a slave to diets and shapewear. The prose is suffused with her shame – “her hair is wet against her forehead, slapping like a strip of raw bacon” – until she shares naked selfies on an anonymous messaging app, and feels something like liberation.

Subjects such as pregnancy and self-harm are handled without sentimentality or squeamishness. When, in Tinderloin, Grace has a miscarriage, she draws comfort not from her wet-blanket boyfriend but from the growing devotion of his dog. You never feel Sams is “exploring an issue”; rather, each story presents the textured fabric of ordinary lives, woven from wry observation, psychological insight and blunt Gen Z dialogue.

Digital natives reared on Snapchat and Tinder, Sams’s characters are largely blase about sex. In Here Alone, seduction begins as a game for Emily – “this was her favourite part: the exchange of signs” – but she loses control. The ensuing tale of delusional desire and casual male cruelty nails rejection with stinging clarity. Family offers little by way of a safety net, as beleaguered parents inhabit an extended adolescence of their own. Roles are reversed: one daughter tries to shield her inebriated mother from social services, another fashions a consolatory beach in a high-rise flat when the pandemic scuppers a long-awaited holiday.

In spare, rhythmic sentences, this exhilarating collection captures the light and dark of negotiating relationships, solitude, sexuality and loss. Sams makes language her own, conjuring piercing imagery that leaves its imprint on your mind, just as traumas mark her characters, even if they do bounce back.

What distinguishes her from millennial writers such as Ottessa Moshfegh, who shares her deadpan humour and visceral style, is that her characters aren’t jaded, but voracious. They’re not immune to existential angst – “Do you ever worry that nothing you do matters?” – but they get on with living, devouring new experiences with gusto. Does this herald a tonal shift in twentysomething fiction? It’s too early to tell, but it’s precisely this earthy resilience and joie de vivre that make Send Nudes so rare and uplifting.

Send Nudes by Saba Sams is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.