Manil Suri is a man of many talents, but perhaps the most useful of them is flying under the radar. Even halfway through The Age of Shiva (Norton, 448 pages, $24.95), you'd swear that his new novel was homespun, unambitious and sentimental. But keep reading; it grows some serious teeth.
The Age of Shiva follows a middle sister, Meera, who is routinely batted around like a pinball by the men in her life: her father, her husband, and her brother-in-law. Their private drama is played out against a backdrop of post-Partition India, in whose alternately racist, sexist, and classist politics the characters participate. Meera obsessively—at times self-destructively—struggles to assert herself, with the idea of taking revenge against her overbearing male relatives. The opportunity finally arises in the form of her newborn son, Ashvin.
First, let's dispense with what didn't work: The frequent religious allegory is yesterday's toast. Without a trace of irony, Suri enlists Hindu myth to explain, expand on, or lend archetypical significance to the actions of his characters, something that postcolonial writers have done—and done better—for decades. Count on it: Anytime Ganesh or Parvati or Shiva or Vishnu is named in the text, the author is winking at you, trying to tell you something about the characters. It's exasperating.
I'm also ambivalent about the pacing. The author has done a good job creating believable characters and moving them around, but he insists on doing it at a jog: events like weddings, abortions, riots and childbirths are accomplished in just a page or two. On one hand, it's this light touch that allows Suri to seem so unassuming—a real asset. On the other hand, with the exception of some extended daydreaming by Meera, there's no time to dig in and get to know the characters. In this way the book is like a conveyor belt sushi bar, full of the most delicious fish, moving so fast that you can't pick anything out.
But these relative weaknesses are far outweighed by the book's powerful centerpiece: a mother's parasitic relationship with her son. Meera has so many reasons for monopolizing Ashvin, and none of them is love. She leans on him to fulfill her needs for revenge, male attention, sexual pleasure, power, and—more than anything else—meaning in her wandering life. In the fashion of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, she forgets or ignores the fact that young Ashvin has a life of his own—a life that she is wrecking with her selfishness. And the realization is all the more shocking because Meera's transformation from neglected middle child to monster mother is accomplished so seamlessly. The novel's pH changes gradually, undetectably, until one page you wake up and it's a tragedy.
All this takes place in an echo chamber of family strife, in which love and revenge are practically indistinguishable. A flat in Bombay is gained in exchange for an abortion; a child is held as ransom for monthly payments from wealthy grandparents. But in spite of its increasingly ominous tone, The Age of Shiva doesn't read heavy, and its best 100 pages are its last. They positively fly by.
Manil Suri reads from
at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 26. Free.