Suzanne Fisher Staples,
Shiva's Fire
(Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000)

Suzanne Fisher Staples is a young adult author who has written several novels about Pakistani culture. Her most recent, Shiva's Fire, serves as a mesmerizing account of an extraordinary young Indian girl and the amazing events that surround her and all who know her.

On the day Parvati was born, fortune and tragedy occur simultaneously in the small South Indian village of Anandanagar. The worst storm in local history hits the town on the first day of monsoon season. Parvati's father, an animal trainer, is trampled by a frightened herd of the Raja's elephants, and Parvati, her mother and her two brothers must live with father's brother and his family. Despite the hardships caused by the storm's destruction, Parvati's life is happy and full of good luck and surprises.

One day the Guru Pazhayanur Muthu Kuman Pillai arrives in Parvati's village and invites her to study bharata natyam -- a sacred dance form -- at his gurukulam in Madras. This honor, although it involves strict training and near solitude, helps Parvati to support her family. More importantly, it is a dream come true for her, for Parvati knows that she was born to dance. As she begins her new lifestyle, Parvati learns that sometimes life can offer too much that is good.

Staples presents a well-researched view of Indian culture, which represents numerous class levels and customs. Her descriptions of the characters and settings employ a strong, clear use of language; Indian life is seen in its entirety, without overkill on descriptions or definitions. The end result is an evocative image of a country about which most young readers only have a general knowledge.

Shiva's Fire moves quickly, although a few of the plot elements weren't completely cleared up at the end. My only real complaint about the novel is my dissatisfaction with the events leading up to the climax. A few of these events seemed contrived, with too much emphasis placed on them to adequately carry the emotions needed for Parvati's final decision.

However, the character of Parvati more than makes up for any plot glitches, as Shiva's Fire is essentially a character novel. Staples has created a self-sufficient heroine, and Parvati's acceptance of her differences and her consequent use of her talents makes her a strong example for young girls.

Overall, Shiva's Fire is a good read, quick and absorbing despite a few bumps along the way. Suzanne Fisher Staples' portrayal of Indian culture makes this novel a welcome ethnic addition to the young adult genre.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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