Book Review: Shiva’s Arms – Cheryl Snell

Title: Shiva’s Arms
Author: Cheryl Snell
ISBN: 9780615340814
Pages: 209
Release Date: March 27, 2010
Publisher: The Writer’s Lair
Genre: Multicultural Fiction
Source: Publicist
Rating: 3 out of 5

Summary:

When Alice married Ramesh, she did so because she loved him.  She was used to the American way of life, and never expected that his mother, Amma,  would play such a large role in their lives.  Unable to adjust to her constant presence, Alice engages in a battle of wills with her mother-in-law in order to have some semblance of control over her life and the lives of her husband and son.

Review:

Shiva’s Arms was an interesting look at the cultural differences between the American and Indian ways of life.  Snell does an excellent job capturing South Indian culture and rituals.  Amma’s attitudes and expectations are culturally typical, even though they seem extraordinary to Alice. Admittedly, Amma is exaggerated, but Snell created a solid story through her characters’ attempts to overcome these cultural differences. 

The main issue running through this novel is a lack of communication.  Ramesh fails to let Alice know what she’ll be marrying into and what will be expected of her.  As a result, Alice is completely unprepared to be a part of a traditional Indian family.  Once the two are married, Amma and Alice have almost no communication.  True, part of that is because they don’t speak the same language, but it’s mainly due to the fact that neither wants to communicate with the other.  Amma is a matriarch, set in her ways and she expects everyone to bend to her will.  She makes no accommodation for the fact that these expectations would be unreasonable even for a modern Indian daughter-in-law. 

However, Alice is not much better.  She makes her displeasure with Amma known very publicly.  Rather than trying to understand Amma’s desires and discuss them with Ramesh in order to come to some sort of compromise, she simply gives into her anger.  Both of these women are strong willed, refusing to see where the other is coming from.  They manipulate the men, vying for some sort of control.  I couldn’t really identify with either of these women.  While I understood where they were coming from and why they were acting as they did, coming from an Indian-American marriage myself, I didn’t see why they couldn’t try to communicate.

Shiva’s Arms is a short book, though it covers a very large time span.  Sometimes, the time frame was confusing because it isn’t clear how far ahead things were jumping.  At one point, I assumed Alice and Ramesh’s son was just a little boy, but a few pages later, he was driving.  It made for choppy reading because I had no idea what was going on sometimes.

This was certainly an interesting novel, and Cheryl Snell shows promise.  I didn’t love the characters in this book, but I thought the culture was very well portrayed.  Additionally, the way Alice and Amma finally overcome their differences towards the end of the book is satisfying.  Alice’s devotion is touching, especially considering what Amma has put her through.  I just wish it could have come at less of an expense!

Comments

  1. Ooh, this one sounds emotionally DARK. Like my blood would boil at the hatred, lack of communication and pride making these people’s lives miserable. I’m not sure I could enjoy this, even if the writing is good.

  2. Ooh, this one sounds emotionally DARK. Like my blood would boil at the hatred, lack of communication and pride making these people’s lives miserable. I’m not sure I could enjoy this, even if the writing is good.

  3. I’m intrigued but I think some of the negatives would be too much for me.

  4. I’m intrigued but I think some of the negatives would be too much for me.

  5. Thank you, Swapna, for your time and the obvious care with which you wrote your review. Indeed, divided loyalties can be a loaded and serious subject, and I’m always interested to see what a reader takes away from this book – and all of my books, in fact. The last reader called Shiva’s Arms a “light-hearted read!

  6. Thank you, Swapna, for your time and the obvious care with which you wrote your review. Indeed, divided loyalties can be a loaded and serious subject, and I’m always interested to see what a reader takes away from this book – and all of my books, in fact. The last reader called Shiva’s Arms a “light-hearted read!

  7. Swapna, I am Jennifer Kumar. I was the first on Cheryl’s blog tour! You have shared some points that are very important.

    For those looking for a lightweight, masala, feel-good Bollywood-type story, this is not what you’re going to get here. Yes, there are parts that make you feel lighthearted but as you pointed out, over all it’s a serious and often times emotionally challenging book to read. But, this is what makes it more real in my opinion. Some cross-cultural marriages are like this (let alone ones that aren’t cross-cultural). Regarding the communication part- that is the point you highlighted that I want to talk to specifically. That is a good point I had not thought of from that angle. Actually, I suppose if Alice and Ram weren’t ‘blinded by love’ and actually took things a bit more ‘seriously’ and communicated all the cross-cultural situations before marriage, we’d not have Shiva’s Arms. Rather than being a weakness of the story, I feel this is a strength because it’s a lesson of what cross-cultural couples should avoid to have a better relationship. Communication is key to understanding, and as you rightly pointed out it was missing. Sure, they had a steamy ‘love life’ but the dichotomy between love life and emotional closeness can be hard to swallow. But this happens again in many kinds of relationships be them cross-cultural or not.

    The other lesson we can take away from the ‘negative’ or ‘hard to read points’ of the book you highlighted is the reason for lack of communication- regarding the culture. Oftentimes, I see people refuse to communicate because of stubbornness or more so because of ethnocentrism. One thinks, “Oh they can’t or will never understand me because I am XXX (Indian/American/insert culture, ethnicity/ group identity, etc).” I lived in India a few years and I saw this as a big barrier to understanding others. Also when the culture is so mysterious even to those living in it, that makes it have an extra layer of complexity. When I lived in India, I’d ask “Why do you do that here?” To this, I’d get the answer “It’s just our culture.” or “I don’t know. Don’t ask about these things, just do them.” When people in their own culture do not understand why things are done, it makes it more mysterious not only to outsiders but ‘insiders’ too. The most glaring example of this is the mysterious Indian wedding. How many people really know what all those rituals mean? Very few, but actually they do have very deep meaning – serious meanings, spiritual meaning or sometimes, plain fun meanings. But the meaning is lost in name of ritual. We see that A LOT in this book. (One example in the beginning, when Ram snatches the Shiva Idol off the dinner table, I believe.) This is very typical in Indian families but also in American ones too! 🙂

    If you’re curious, my review is posted here
    http://www.alaivani.com/Blog/tabid/56/EntryID/482/Default.aspx

    Thanks for challenging my mind to bring the positives from the negatives, Swapna. Happy Onam!!

  8. Swapna, I am Jennifer Kumar. I was the first on Cheryl’s blog tour! You have shared some points that are very important.

    For those looking for a lightweight, masala, feel-good Bollywood-type story, this is not what you’re going to get here. Yes, there are parts that make you feel lighthearted but as you pointed out, over all it’s a serious and often times emotionally challenging book to read. But, this is what makes it more real in my opinion. Some cross-cultural marriages are like this (let alone ones that aren’t cross-cultural). Regarding the communication part- that is the point you highlighted that I want to talk to specifically. That is a good point I had not thought of from that angle. Actually, I suppose if Alice and Ram weren’t ‘blinded by love’ and actually took things a bit more ‘seriously’ and communicated all the cross-cultural situations before marriage, we’d not have Shiva’s Arms. Rather than being a weakness of the story, I feel this is a strength because it’s a lesson of what cross-cultural couples should avoid to have a better relationship. Communication is key to understanding, and as you rightly pointed out it was missing. Sure, they had a steamy ‘love life’ but the dichotomy between love life and emotional closeness can be hard to swallow. But this happens again in many kinds of relationships be them cross-cultural or not.

    The other lesson we can take away from the ‘negative’ or ‘hard to read points’ of the book you highlighted is the reason for lack of communication- regarding the culture. Oftentimes, I see people refuse to communicate because of stubbornness or more so because of ethnocentrism. One thinks, “Oh they can’t or will never understand me because I am XXX (Indian/American/insert culture, ethnicity/ group identity, etc).” I lived in India a few years and I saw this as a big barrier to understanding others. Also when the culture is so mysterious even to those living in it, that makes it have an extra layer of complexity. When I lived in India, I’d ask “Why do you do that here?” To this, I’d get the answer “It’s just our culture.” or “I don’t know. Don’t ask about these things, just do them.” When people in their own culture do not understand why things are done, it makes it more mysterious not only to outsiders but ‘insiders’ too. The most glaring example of this is the mysterious Indian wedding. How many people really know what all those rituals mean? Very few, but actually they do have very deep meaning – serious meanings, spiritual meaning or sometimes, plain fun meanings. But the meaning is lost in name of ritual. We see that A LOT in this book. (One example in the beginning, when Ram snatches the Shiva Idol off the dinner table, I believe.) This is very typical in Indian families but also in American ones too! 🙂

    If you’re curious, my review is posted here
    http://www.alaivani.com/Blog/tabid/56/EntryID/482/Default.aspx

    Thanks for challenging my mind to bring the positives from the negatives, Swapna. Happy Onam!!

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  11. I am sorry Swapna, my computer had some issue sending the messages. You can delete the second one and this one as it will be redundant. Thanks.

  12. I am sorry Swapna, my computer had some issue sending the messages. You can delete the second one and this one as it will be redundant. Thanks.

  13. This sounds like an emotional read. And very interesting, especially because of the focus on cultural differences. I would love to read about that. I’m not sure about the time-confusion however.

  14. This sounds like an emotional read. And very interesting, especially because of the focus on cultural differences. I would love to read about that. I’m not sure about the time-confusion however.

  15. I really have no desire to read the book, but that cover is stunning!

  16. I really have no desire to read the book, but that cover is stunning!

  17. This sounds interesting – too bad the characters aren’t more likable.

  18. This sounds interesting – too bad the characters aren’t more likable.

  19. The communication issues in this story really intrigue me, and although the characters are pretty unlikable, I am wondering if that’s something I can overlook. It sounds like this book has a lot going on with it in terms of the portrayal of marriage, communication and culture, and I would be really interested in reading it. Thanks for the great review! I think you had some really interesting thoughts on this!

  20. The communication issues in this story really intrigue me, and although the characters are pretty unlikable, I am wondering if that’s something I can overlook. It sounds like this book has a lot going on with it in terms of the portrayal of marriage, communication and culture, and I would be really interested in reading it. Thanks for the great review! I think you had some really interesting thoughts on this!

  21. Lack of communication can indeed lead to very serious problems. I really love the premise of the book and it’s interesting to read about culture clashes too. Too bad certain parts didn’t work for you.

    I’m wondering why the book is called Shiva’s arms though.

  22. Lack of communication can indeed lead to very serious problems. I really love the premise of the book and it’s interesting to read about culture clashes too. Too bad certain parts didn’t work for you.

    I’m wondering why the book is called Shiva’s arms though.

  23. Hello Violet,

    I can help you with that –I called the novel Shiva’s Arms after the many-armed Hindu god of creation and destruction. Amma is named for that god, and metaphorically embraces, as well as repels, the other characters.

    The book is literary fiction and was built on several central metaphors: the choppiness of the samsara sea, the divided loyalties inherent in the momentous act of immigration, and the Christian ideal of reconciliation. That ideal is what helps Alice heal herself of her mental illness as well as healing Amma, and symbolically bringing two opposing forces together.

  24. Hello Violet,

    I can help you with that –I called the novel Shiva’s Arms after the many-armed Hindu god of creation and destruction. Amma is named for that god, and metaphorically embraces, as well as repels, the other characters.

    The book is literary fiction and was built on several central metaphors: the choppiness of the samsara sea, the divided loyalties inherent in the momentous act of immigration, and the Christian ideal of reconciliation. That ideal is what helps Alice heal herself of her mental illness as well as healing Amma, and symbolically bringing two opposing forces together.

  25. I really enjoyed your review. I really enjoy novels set in India. I will have to check this one out.

  26. I really enjoyed your review. I really enjoy novels set in India. I will have to check this one out.

  27. I’ve never heard of this one but it certainly sounds intriguing. I love the cover. Great review Swapna!

  28. I’ve never heard of this one but it certainly sounds intriguing. I love the cover. Great review Swapna!

  29. Hi Cheryl,
    yes, I do know who Lord Shiva is, that was why I was a little intrigued about the title. Thank you for explaining it to me.

  30. Hi Cheryl,
    yes, I do know who Lord Shiva is, that was why I was a little intrigued about the title. Thank you for explaining it to me.

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