Book Review: The High Priestess Never Marries by Sharanya Manivannan

In which the reviewer wishes someone told the high priestess to take it down a notch. Or two.

With a click-bait title like that, you can really go very right. Or very wrong. It’s an either-or situation when so much attention is being directed towards a phrase as well-wrung out and carefully-crafted as The High Priestess Never Marries.

Suffice to say, it is intriguing enough for anybody to want to pick it up and read. Couple that with its handy size and mostly nugget-sized stories, and you’ve got yourself a magnet on the bookshelf, destined to pull readers of all kinds towards itself.

So far so good.

The High Priestess Never Marries book cover. Courtesy HarperCollins India

The High Priestess Never Marries book cover. Courtesy HarperCollins India

The reading of this collection of short pieces – thought-musings – is bound to be an experience separate from that process, and yet there are enough linkages too. The crafty wordplay the title promises you snakes through its pages and never once lets up.

Sample this longing for a lover-that-once-was:

And at nightfall I cuspidate my senses so I can intuit your arrival: prowl of paw, coil of wind.

Or this heightened state of what I will term – for the sake of argument – self-awareness:

I was once the ugly child of an exceptionally lovely woman, and I carry around the fragile vanity of those who are never secure in their beauty, never quite believe what their baby feathers moulted to reveal.

But, unfortunately, that is all there is to it, really. A lot of smoke, no real fire. The relentless barrage of imagery-evoked-through-clever-wordplay gets tiresome very, very soon. And unless you’re prepping for your first year of graduation yearbook contribution, you’re going to want to put this one down very, very soon.

If only somebody had advised the writer to tone it down just a tad bit, and get more real, so the reader could really get a feel of the characters, find a way in, this might have been a special, unique little book with a special, unique voice. Something we’re given a tiny glimpse of, right at the end, in the vignette titled ‘Sweetness, Wildness, Greed’, the most masterfully imagined and executed short of the lot.

Sharanya Manivannan. Photo by Catriona Mitchell

Sharanya Manivannan. Photo by Catriona Mitchell

What we’re left with instead are words, too many of them. Words you’d like to drop like bombs at a sophomore party perhaps, to counter that boy’s knowledge of Pink Floyd trivia, so you could both end the night with some making out and forget about each other soon after. Words that are meant to be inscrutable – calyxed, obsidian, susurrus… the list is endless.

But most unfortunately, you’re left facing a big, fat lock on that house that writers create where people, real people, live and breathe and particularly in the case of ‘High Priestess’, fuck.

All that, and a scathing rage for the editor who could not tell the difference between overwrought and eloquent. Fine, maybe not rage, but I most definitely have an eye-roll. Or two.

Book Details:

Author: Sharanya Manivannan

Title: The High Priestess Never Marries: Stories of Love and Consequence (Order online)

Year of publication: 2017

Publisher: HarperCollins India

Number of pages: 296

Pooja Pande is the lead reportage editor for Papercuts magazine.