Monday, July 12, 2010

Blog Tour Event: Shiva's Arms by Cheryl Snell

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2010

It's about: This book centers around the themes of conflict and healing -- conflict between cultures (Hindu Indian and American), between husband and wife, between parent and son, but most of all between Mother-in-law and Daughter-in-law.  Alice is a blonde, hippi American artist who caught Ram's eye while he was in graduate school in America.  But Alice's desperate desire to be accepted by Ram's Hindu family is dashed to pieces from the moment she arrives in India for their traditional wedding ceremony -- Ram's mother makes it very clear, she is not welcome in her family.  Throughout the rest of their lives, Alice and Ram's mother, "Amma," are at odds, and though there are brief glimmers of potential understanding, the distance and prejudice between them only seem to grow greater.  When disaster strikes, though, can these two find a common ground and heal the wounds of many years?

I thought: Over all, I would say this is a good break-out novel for a first-time author, though I would not say it is without its faults.  It deals with universal themes of conflict, healing, family, and mutual understanding, though perhaps in a slightly predictable way-- the plot line itself is nothing revolutionary, here.  However, the elements of cultural clashing and reconciliation are skillfully done.  The focuses on foods, clothing, and customs are interestingly incorporated into the story-line, and I finished the novel feeling a little more enlightened into the Indian Hindu culture. Snell even includes a glossary in the back describing some of the terms and elements in greater detail, and she also includes some Indian recipes -- "Straight from Amma's Kitchen."

Character development in the beginning of the novel is a little shaky, and it is especially difficult to understand the character of Alice and her relationship with her husband and son.  Snell chooses to focus primarily on the relationship between Alice and Amma, which drives the story line, but in so doing perhaps loses the depth of some of the other relationships in the novel. Over all, though, as I stated before -- this is a decent break-out novel, and Snell shows potential as a fiction writer.

Verdict: Can't place this one firmly on the shelf, so we're going to classify it as in-between.

Warnings: There are some vague allusions to sex in the book, but they are few and far between.


Author Cheryl Snell also was gracious enough to answer a few interview questions about this work and her writing in general.  Previously, she has published four collections of poetry.

Where did the inspiration come from for this story?  Is it at all autobiographical?

Only the broad set-up was drawn from my life--American girl marries Hindu Brahmin. The characters and their struggles grew organically out of the story as it developed through several years of revisions. My own truth, being stranger than fiction, wouldn't necessarily have fit in with the themes, motifs, and symbolism of the book. Fictional truth is so much more malleable.

What is your experience with Indian culture? Did you visit India/do any research before writing this book?
Besides marrying into the culture, I read many novels by and about Indians, and studied the history, religion,philosophy, customs, and cuisine, particularly that of of the Kerala Brahmins, the group portrayed in the book. The land of feasts, fasts, and festivals! I even learned to wrap a sari properly, thanks to one old Indian lady who took me into a side room at the Indian Embassy in DC, and wound one around me. I don't remember how she happened to have a spare.

What made you decide to transition from poetry to fiction?
I pulled the poetry right into the fiction, I hope. And I'd always written and published short stories as well as poetry, just not as much of it. My marriage was what inspired me to take on a longer project, partly to learn to parse a culture so foreign to me.

What aspect of Shiva's Arms are you most proud of?
I was able to develop characters with both good and bad sides to them, make them represent the elements of the momentous act of immigration, and examine  the question of divided loyalties in an entertaining way.

What future writing plans do you have? Any other upcoming books or collections of poetry?
I'm always working on several things at the same time - it's my hedge against writer's block. I have another collaboration of poems and art with my sister, Janet Snell, another short story collection, and a third volume about another member of the fictional Sambashivan family taking shape now. My  pico-press is about to deliver the second edition of actress/poet Nanette Rayman Rivera's memoirs, too.

Cheryl will be here with us today to answer any other questions or comments that you might have for her.  Thanks, Cheryl!

This book was received by the Blue Bookcase as a free copy in exchange for a review.