Thomas Sutcliffe: A taboo subject that shouldn't be

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Writing quite often gets praised for being "bold" these days, and, it hardly needs saying, it's praised for it far more often than it deserves. This isn't entirely the fault of writers, or of critics, either. The latter like to acknowledge daring and nerve – some departure from the tried-and-tested routes up the rock – but we live in an age where liberality itself provides a safety net. How to be bold when pretty much anything is permitted – in the West at least?

True, Salman Rushdie found out that he'd been uncommonly bold when he published The Satanic Verses, but unfortunately he only found out after the event – and you can't really sleep-walk your way to a medal. In pretty much every other respect, though, the freedom of the writer to imagine and describe is broad enough to make courage difficult to demonstrate. But the other day I did read something that seemed to me genuinely to qualify as bold: the opening page of Manil Suri's novel The Age of Shiva.

It appears to consist of a lover's hymn of praise, the unnamed speaker apostrophising her partner Ashvin. "Do you know how tightly you shut your eyes as with your lips you search my skin?" she asks, before describing the way his fingers brush against her breast. And then small oddities in the prose resolve in the reader's mind into a startled understanding. This is not a lover being described but a child, a feeding infant whose drive towards the nipple has – pace Dr Freud – nothing directly sexual about it. It is a very calculated paragraph, teasing the reader towards one kind of response before revealing that it refers to something different. I don't doubt that it has left more than one reader feeling duped into "inappropriate" thoughts, that modern marker of taboo.

But then Suri goes one step further. As the child begins to feed, he doesn't fade tastefully to black on an image of maternal nurture but continues to describe what the mother might feel. And her responses, it is clear, are sensual: "I lose myself in the rhythm of your intake. Am I imagining it, or is there a parallel rhythm that echoes inside me? A longing that rises through my body and trembles under my skin?" Suri even manages to get a further inflection of sexuality into the passage by using a cliché of the sexually decorous novel – a word used by more circumspect writers to indicate that the unmentionable crisis is safely over. "Afterwards, I lie next to you," says his protagonist, when the baby is sated.

This confusion of pure and potentially impure feelings is to return in the novel in a much more volitive form – when Ashvin is a teenage boy and his habit of sleeping with his mother leads to a moment of troubling ambiguity. For a hazardous moment, a sleepy maternal embrace seems to tremble on the brink of turning into something very different – and the mother's emotional dependency on her son takes on another aspect.

In the end, nothing quite happens, and yet these passages have still provoked strong reactions from some critics, with words such as "unspeakable" and "abhorrent" featuring in reviews. And the fact that Suri foregrounds this element of the book on the very first page suggests that he knew he was doing something unsettling. It is, as I say, bold.

Lacking the ability to lactate, as I do, I can't confidently say whether his account of breastfeeding accurately captures its pleasures or not, though I know that women have spoken candidly about the physical pleasure of the act – and the intimate connection it gives them to their babies. But it did seem clear to me that it wasn't incest that Suri was writing about here or later – even if his true subject might be categorised as a taboo of sorts. What he's trying to capture is an oddly underwritten aspect of family life, the sheer physical pleasure that people get from hugging and caressing their children. It's underwritten because writing about it isn't easy in an atmosphere of hysterical anxiety. When Blake Morrison tried to do it in his book As If – in a passage that tenderly described getting his daughter ready for bed – there were readers who felt he shouldn't have made the attempt.

Even noticing that children have bodies, as Craig Raine did in a poem called "Laying a Lawn", which described his naked daughter, can result in trouble. And yet it's a universal truth that children do have bodies and their parents love to hold them. Suri should get credit for trying to recover some of the language of physical contact for this innocent pleasure. It isn't "abhorrent". It's touching.

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