Book Review: Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

The Cover
I remember loving The Death of Vishnu when I read it in college, so I was thrilled when Shab told me Manil Suri had a new book out.  Despite her warning that she had trouble getting into the book even after 50 pages, I rushed to the Berkeley Public Library to reserve a copy.  I was riveted from the first page, but unable to put it down in the same way you're unable to turn away from a roadside accident.  "Oh.  Is it really that bad?  There's a lot of sirens and broken glass.  Oh, yes, actually it's as bad as I thought.  No, wait, it's worse.  Oh goodness- that's disturbing!"  

451 pages inside the head of Meera is a claustrophobic and bewildering experience.  Initially her world appears arrayed against her, but by the end I wasn't sure who to believe or what to trust in.  A provincial mother, an overbearing father, and a series of emotional betrayals by her loved ones leaves Meera bereft and alone.  Just when she starts to seem like a sympathetic character, however, a series of willful choices ensnare her in a world of bitterness and frustration. Her response is to emotionally corrode the lives of those closest to her.  

The Other Cover
I kept reading through the entire 451 pages because I was expecting a grand transformation.  My logic was if an author is going to invoke Shiva in his title then there's got to be some umpf to the book- times of asceticism, times of ecstatic dance, times of destruction.  Instead this book petered out into one drawn out passive-aggressive silence after another.  I was so worried I'd misjudged Suri as an author that I went back and re-read The Death of Vishnu.  Maybe it simply compared favorably to the semester's worth of Chaucer it was up against at the time?  But I found The Death of Vishnu as thought-provoking as before.  Yes, the characters (especially the female ones) were callous and calculating.  But Vishnu, dying on the landing, travels a miraculously hallucinogenic journey mirrored by other characters (primarily male) in the book.  The book has its problems, but the writing is visually stunning and at the end the reader is unsure who is a god, who is a human, who is alive, who is dead, and what any of it might mean.

Manil Suri
There's not nearly as much ambiguity in The Age of Shiva.  Actually, it's unambiguous that just like Salman Rushdie (unabashedly one of my favorite authors), Suri has a complicated and relatively unfriendly relationship with his female characters.  And I must admit Suri does not write convincingly from the point of view of a woman.  News flash to male writers:  most of us women don't spend hours each day reflecting on various parts of our anatomy.  Breasts exist, but they're certainly not worth extended internal dialogue for chapters on end!  If you're going to pretend you're a woman, at least try and convincingly think like one.

I'd rarely say "pass" on a novel, but if you really have a hankering for reading one of Suri's works, I'd suggest a rereading of The Death of Vishnu.  Leave The Age of Shiva on the shelf.