Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Girl In The Garden by Kamala Nair

The Girl In The Garden by Kamala Nair
320 pages
Published June 2011 by Grand Central Publishing

As her wedding day draws near, Rakhee Singh leaves her fiance a long letter and her engagement ring and makes her way to India to come to terms with something she has been keeping secret from her fiance, something that has been causing Rakhee pain since the summer when she was ten years old.

That summer Rakhee's mother began receiving mysterious letters from India, letters that seemed to affect her parents' relationship, letters that seem to have convinced her mother not to take the pills that made her a happier person. As isolated and alone as Rakhee feels in small town Minnesota, she is not at all happy when her mother announces that the two of them will be traveling to India for the summer.

Once they arrived in India, however, Rakhee became completely absorbed in life in the small village where her mother's family has lived for generations. In Malanad, Rakhee's family, the Varmas are highly respected and live in the biggest house. Rakhee immediately noticed, however, that everything in the house appeared to be a little shabby and the hospital that her family owns was being operated by a man, Dev, Rakhee instinctively disliked.

The longer Rakhee was in Malanad, the more questions she had. What was  going on with the hospital and what hold did Dev have over the family? Who was the "old family friend," Prem, who seems to be the only person who could make Rakhee's mother happy? Why did the family seem to blame Rakhee's mother for their problems?  But most importantly, what is the secret of the forest behind the family's home? The cousins had been told that a rakshasi (a she-demon) lived and that only adults were allowed to go into the forest to make offerings. But Rakhee did not believe in things like she-demons and when she saw her mother and aunt go into the forest late one night she became determined to discover the truth for herself. When she did, everything changed.

Is it possible that there just is not a book set in India that I will not like? Once again, I have found myself utterly engrossed by a book set in this country. Library Journal calls The Girl In The Garden a cross between Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. Nair has clearly drawn inspiration from both but she has certainly crafted a work that is utterly her own (**tomorrow the story of the inspiration for this novel**).
"They were washing the clothes in the river, roughly and efficiently, then standing and slapping them dry on rocks. Each time they brought a piece of cloth down upon the rock it made a resilient thwack. It was almost a dance; the women in their stained, monochromatic saris, their prematurely graying hair pulled back into frazzled buns, crouching, washing, standing and beating, the rhythm of their movements imbued with a surprising grace."
India comes alive in Nair's hands; while I was reading, I completely forgot my own surroundings. Book clubs would find much to talk about with this book; the many ways Nair explores love alone would make for a lively discussion. Family relationships, guilt, shame, responsibility...all included as well.

Thrity Umrigar, author of The Space Between Us, calls The Girl In The Garden "an impressive debut." It certainly is.

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