VIVEK SHRAYA’S SLIM and eminently readable novel She of the Mountains has the distinct air of a roman à clef. He tells his tale in a point-counterpoint style, interweaving energetic and engaging passages of Hindu mythology with the coming-of-age story of a nameless, Canadian, bisexual young man in Edmonton, who has been socially identified by his peers as gay but finds himself to be attracted sexually to both men and women. To the surprise of many, he falls in love with a woman from the office, and they escape the provincial confines of Edmonton for cosmopolitan Toronto. The less believable and debatably more torturous element of the book is its assertion that it is fiction rather than memoir, for if it is not memoir, why was more attention not paid to the development of stronger plotline and characters?
Compelling illustrations by Raymond Biesinger are rendered in green, white, and black: geometric and abstract in form, they often recall the art of the coastal tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Shraya’s superior prose style and well-told passages centering on the creation mythos of Hindu religion drive the book forward. The mythological passages work so well because Shraya covers enormous amounts of plot quickly and effectively. He writes eloquently of the creation triad of the Hindu gods Parvati, Shiv, and Ganesh. Parvati gives birth to Ganesh, but when Shiv returns, not knowing Ganesh, he murders him at their doorstep. Shraya writes from the perspective of Parvati:
Seeing my lifeless child on the doorstep where he had been on guard, what else can I do but cry his name over and over again? His name and new names, future pet names I didn’t have the luxury of giving him, in the hope that one of them will reach him, wherever he is, and bring him back to me.
The pain is palpable in that prose, and the passage works because of raw emotionality. Weaknesses appear when Shraya is tying his two tales together. Or, rather, in my view, when he doesn’t. Perhaps this choice is intentional to allow the reader to make some direct inferences. As he states at the start:
In the beginning there is no he. There is no she.
Two cells make up one cell. This is the mathematics behind creation. One plus one makes one. Life begets life. We are the period to a sentence, the effect to a cause, always belonging to someone. We are never our own.
This is why we are so lonely.
Briefly, ever so briefly, we linger as one. Our true first. Then we divide over and over again, always by two.
Given this, what Shraya seems to be arriving at is a thesis about love, belonging, and togetherness. The stories of gods touch on these issues, and while their stories may seem fantastical, the emotions contained within them actually feel much the same in our worldly lives without all of the dramatic twists. The result is a story without a beginning, middle, and end; stakes; or much in the way of insightful characterization outside of the protagonist. He and his nameless lover come together, face ridicule, find love, find sexual satisfaction, and learn to support one another. Ultimately we learn that they have drifted apart and separated. In the telling, this arc is frustratingly ambiguous. Shraya relates the end of their relationship to a painting the two had purchased at Ikea and then sold on Craigslist after they decide to break up. “The painting became a fixture of their bedroom, as vital as the bed itself, and over time, he couldn’t imagine their home without it.” As he writes of the end of the relationship, “Their sentence kept finding a way, because they kept finding a way to make room for a comma and another comma and another conjunction, because there was still so much to share, still so much more to say.” Little else is said. No whys, hows, or whats. Rather, a painting is sold, and the period is not put on the sentence.
Still, the intersectionality of identity binaries is an engaging line of intellectual questioning, particularly for those characters like the protagonist, who seemingly exist in the spaces in between brown vs. white, masculine vs. feminine, gay vs. straight. Shraya does well in putting all of these layers of identity on the table for discussion. And, that is part of what makes this novel feel much more like memoir than fiction. It doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the read or the author’s talent, but it did leave me wanting, for presenting memoir as fiction puts certain unrealized constraints on a story. Some of the tougher, deeper questions about identity and sexual longing go unasked. Did the ridicule they faced as a couple undo them? Were they monogamous, or was his bisexuality incorporated fully into their relationship? How did they incorporate queerness into their relationship? Were they able to find communities that supported them?
The author also does himself a disservice by limiting his third-person narrative viewpoint to that of the protagonist — particularly for a protagonist who seems so preoccupied with notions of identity, others’ perceptions of his identity, and his own internalized homophobia at his failure to meet social expectations. The other characters seem to serve in little capacity beyond helping the protagonist explore the confines of his own identity.
Ultimately, this novel is one of great style, but that style somewhat trumps the substance, especially in the passages exploring the protagonist’s coming-of-age story. As a tone poem or memoir on the exploration of identity, it works. As fiction, like its protagonist, this novel is more than a bit muddled. Still, Shraya’s vision and ambition make me look forward to his next work.