Shilpi Somaya Gowda has always been fascinated with cults.
To hear her tell it, one of the first things she did when she moved to the San Diego area was to visit the infamous house in Rancho Santa Fe where 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide.
“I tried to find it right away, but they changed the name of the street so you have to do a bit of sleuthing in order to look it up,” says Gowda.
This is a surprising fact to learn about Gowda. The Toronto native is the author of two best-selling novels (“Secret Daughter” and “The Golden Son”), but those dealt more in the complex dynamics of family and culture. Those themes are certainly explored in Gowda’s recently released third novel, “The Shape of Family,” but it also finds the local author veering into darker topics such as death, self-injury and, yes, cults.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the idea not just of cults, but more by the people who join and all the points in their life that lead up to that decision,” says Gowda, who has lived in Rancho Santa Fe since 2010.
Still, “The Shape of Family” isn’t simply a cautionary tale on the dangers of overzealous devotion. Rather, it explores how a family attempts to cope with the tragic death of a beloved son and brother. In the case of the novel’s central character, a young woman named Karina, this subsistence comes in the form of cutting herself and, later, by joining an eco-conscious commune filled with shadowy outsiders.
Early attempts at “The Shape of Family” revolved mostly around Karina’s struggles, but Gowda saw an opportunity to turn the story into a larger portrait of a California family attempting to find peace in the face of tragedy. After the death of their son, Prem, Karina’s parents attempt to cope in their own respective ways. The Indian matriarch, Jaya, devotes herself more aggressively to her Hindi religion. The American father, Keith, becomes increasingly wrapped up in dangerous infidelities and his high-profile finance career.
The novel’s narrative shifts between the characters, with chapters devoted to each of their perspectives. Some of the more interesting passages are from Prem, who offers his own insights from beyond the grave.
“People want someone to blame after a person dies, especially when that person is a child,” remarks Prem early in the novel.
Gowda says she wanted to build an “ecosystem” within the story, where the narratives intersect and intertwine.
“I really like writing in that way because it enables me to look at all sides of something,” Gowda says. “There’s always two or many sides to an argument, and that’s especially true in families.”
Another understated struggle for Karina is her feeling of otherness when it comes to her racial identity. Having grown up in Canada the daughter of Indian immigrants, Gowda says she didn’t directly draw inspiration from her own upbringing, but her own experiences were certainly helpful.
“I was often standing outside of things, oftentimes not by choice,” says Gowda.
So while there are certainly similarities between Gowda and Karina, the same could be said of the other characters as well. It’s easy to see how the author’s Indian heritage informed the mother’s religious fervor, while the father’s work at a reputable finance firm was almost certainly influenced by Gowda’s brief stint working on Wall Street.
Put these perspectives together and the reader begins to understand that “The Shape of Family” is not simply a story about tragedy or even the dangers of fervent devotion, but a story about mourning in all its myriad forms.
“There are no villains here. Every character is deeply affected by this tragedy, and they’re all doing their best,” says Gowda. “Each individual is trying hard and each one is limited, but there are some similarities in the way that they are seeking.”
For more information, visit www.shilpigowda.com.
— Seth Combs is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune