Scouring the shelves to feed the howl of the contemporary I also felt the need to get travelling again last week. With apologies to all antipodean visitors I haven't settled in Australia at all, I'll be back but I need to move on. So looking for some new cultures to explore I chanced upon The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri...India in the 1950's after partition, Gardens of Water by Alan Drew...Turkey after an earthquake, and don't ask me why, The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block...Alzheimers in the USA.
Then I started them all at once.
Could be a right old mix up and mish mash, a recipe for chaos, especially given that one of those books is quite an unnerving read when I frequently seem to forget where I've parked my car these days. Well I might lose track of my Fiesta, but I don't seem to have a problem keeping stories seperate in my mind so instead it's been a brilliant bout of reading.
Beautifully be-ribboned, The Age of Shiva, the 450 pages that Kiran Desai read in one sitting, took me slightly longer but one of those hefty all-absorbing, total immersion in place and time reads. More gaps in my political and historical knowledge exposed and with it the reality, I can't know everything but what I pick up along the way is invaluable if it presents something previously unknown in a memorable way.
Manil Suri subverts expectations and sets out a very different father-daughter relationship to the one I, in my mind, might associate with the Indian sub-continent. Times may well have changed and that could all be down to my ignorance but I was surprised to find a father offering his daughter complete freedom from an arranged marriage and religious ties and encouraging her to seek a good education. Meera has other ideas and so an oddly distorted picture of a father's control and disempowerment of his daughter emerges as Meera actively seeks marriage and thereby the traditional constraints of religion.
Married in haste to Dev, a singer, Meera submits to the orthodoxy of his family and a life verging on imprisonment. Giving birth to a son, Ashvin becomes the shining star of Meera's life and a more claustrophobic mother-son relationship it would be hard to describe as the family move to Bombay for Dev to seek fame and fortune.
At times, I'll admit, this all made for slightly uncomfortable reading, like most mothers I am more than happy to see children fly the nest, Meera's relationship with Ashvin felt completely alien and beyond my understanding, suffocating in order to fulfill her own needs, but it would all offer much fruitful discussion at a book group.
As is often the far-fetched case I was reading another book with a similar central theme, that of an intense and over-bearing mother-son relationship. You'd hardly expect Cornwall in the 1800's to have any similarities to India in the 1950's but The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier does. Age-old themes of love and possession, conflict and an exploration of women's lives all cross literary boundaries with ease.
I wondered whether a book this long might sag in the middle, have a rickety bridge moment, and looking at the reviews I now see that The Age of Shiva has had a mixed reception and stands accused of not being enough of a page turner. I'm not sure life's a page turner either and perhaps the skill of the storyteller is to keep me turning the pages just the same, Manil Suri certainly managed that for Kiran and me and I expect for countless others too.
I'm now looking forward to a retrospective read of Manil Suri's Booker longlisted The Death of Vishnu and will anticipate with interest the final book in the trilogy which you can hear the author talk about here.