Cheryl Snell's Shiva's Arms (novel review)by Matthew Biberman
Any one who frequents the fiction section of a good independent bookstore knows that there is something of a cottage industry of writers currently churning out fiction invested in capturing the lived experience of ex-pat Indians who have moved to America. One of the more distinctive elements of this sub-genre is its investment in detailing life in India as well as in America, most often in ways that include, often in great detail, the back stories of the characters before their decision to move away from their home land.
A recent addition to this stack of books is Cheryl Snell’s first novel, Shiva’s Arms. I know and admire Cheryl first and foremost as a poet, a fact that inevitably colored my reading of this book. Indeed I would encourage anyone who begins Shiva’s Arms to keep this fact in mind because I believe it influences the writing of this novel all the way down to its essence. Cheryl’s poetic eye is not just visible in the felicitous phrase, though the book is filled with such moments. A conversation in an Indian cab takes place in a dialect that sounds “like gravel in their mouths.” When a character unravels, we see that her eyes are “blue puddles in her slack face.” Food gets sopped up “in a baseball mitt” of bread. But to read Shiva’s Arms for its precise, poetic imagery is to skate along an iced over lake without any thought to the depths below.
The true challenge of Shiva’s Arms is to recognize that it is a very ambitious—indeed, innovative piece of writing. It is an experiment in what I would call a transversal novel. Shiva’s Arms takes shape somewhere between the sonnet craze that swept Shakespeare’s England four centuries ago and the cinematic techniques often identified as producing the Rashomon effect in twentieth century avant garde film.
First we must think about that now largely obsolete form—the sonnet sequence. Generally understood to have been popularized by Petrach with his love poems to Laura, the sonnet sequence flourished in the late sixteenth century in London. Shakespeare’s effort is a very late example, and perhaps for that reason, breaks new ground. For the first time, the poet is repeatedly identified with the speaker of the poems (think of all those puns on Will) and the beloved is not simply idealized (famously, her eyes are nothing like the sun) but also unfaithful. Nor is the narrative clear. When you read Shakespeare’s poems it is as if you are reading a novel in snap shots, but with this twist: as you read it dawns on you that somehow the poems are no longer in chronological order
While keeping that experience in mind, let us flash forward to the art house movie. Famously, Kurosawa made a film--Rashomon (1950) that retells a crime from four different perspectives, a device that highlights the complex and dynamic nature of reality. What the Rashomon effect highlights is the truth that though reality is intersubjective (that is, reality is a collective formation), this “collective hallucination” (to use Freud’s term) is inevitably being made by individuals who are experiencing what is happening in ways that are always at once congruent and divergent.
What Cheryl has done in Shiva’s Arms is to present the story of an extended family in a novel that combines both of these techniques. The result can be described as a novel where each chapter operates as a kind of intense short poem, that is-- as a sonnet. The chapters do not, however, anchor the reader to one character. Rather, the reader is passed from character to character. We begin tied to the American Alice, but then pass on to her husband Ram, and then their child Sam. This primary pattern is however interrupted with detours into Ram’s mother Amma, and -- with increasing frequency as the book builds to its conclusion -- the shunned sister Nela. With each shift, a different perspective is showcased. In strategy, the result is reminiscent of some of our most celebrated modernist novels, books such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway come immediately to mind. But in those works, the effect encourages the reader to separate out the characters so that the readers gains a satisfying sense that people are unique, yet isolated, grounded but limited to their bodies.
The effect that Snell produces in Shiva’s Arms is striking because it works in reverse. People in families get caught up in each other so that the configurations shift and change. Suddenly the notion that we are limited to our physical bodies falls away. We meld in our struggles, mix and combine in ways that defeat the macro laws of physics both in terms of space and even time. In this, Snell’s work is reminiscent of Djuna Barnes cult masterpiece Nightwood, though the overall mood is far more evocative of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.
For me the high points of Shiva’s Arms come when Snell renders the rapid blooming of a state of existential dread. The effect is positively unsettling in its intensity, most especially early in the novel after Alice’s marriage precipitates a psychological crisis. The concluding confrontation between Amma and Alice is even more impressive, coming as it does so effectively after the dramatic resolution of the dinner immediately preceding it. Fights in Shiva Arms do not end with characters walling themselves off. Everything drives toward mixture, a fact highlighted by Ram when he observes that “we are all just chemistry labs.” This theme is made overt via the role food plays in this novel complete with Recipes, a crowning touch. According to western cliché, cooking and food illustrate how each of us enjoys a unique and colorful heritage of goodness. True to its radical nature, Shiva’s Arms upends that idea and puts in place the notion that each of us is but an ingredient, a blend that makes up the bigger whole.
Shiva’s Arms is a satisfying novel that demands much from its reader. Its strengths are many but if I had to pick one on which to end I will stress that this is a book that provocatively challenges many of the most cherished presumptions propping up many well known examples of Indian – American fiction, or indeed of multicultural literature generally speaking. Despite paying lip service to the idea that western notions of subjectivity are not universal, most writers working in the genre of the English novel continue to present nonwestern forms of consciousness via free standing western characters. In stark contrast, Shiva’s Arms invites you to imagine characters that are interconnected parts of a larger whole. Such a radical insight can only come from a novelist of great talent and skillful execution. With luck, future novels from Cheryl Snell will deepen this exploration. As a reader I certainly look forward to the adventure.