Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: The Girl in the Garden by Kamila Nair

Our past and our family are two of the biggest parts of what makes up each of us. The past may be finished but it forms the basis for so much, even if we try to distance ourselves from it; it is inescapable. And family is even more inescapable, written in our very genes and tugging at us no matter how hard we try to turn our backs on it. In Kamala Nair's debut novel The Girl in the Garden, recognition of family, excessive pride in name and reputation, and the exposure of its deepest secrets changes everything.

The novel opens with Rakhee leaving her engagement ring and a very long letter with her new fiance explaining that she cannot possibly get married without finding closure from the summer when she was 11 and her mother took her back to India, the summer that shook up her life and her family forever. The letter detailing the events of that summer makes up the bulk of the book. Rakhee's parents' marriage is floundering and in addition to the tension of life at home, she also has to deal with feeling outcast at school, the only Indian girl and so different than the rest of her classmates. When a letter arrives from India, her mother, who is clearly depressed and remote, decides to take Rakhee back to her small village in Southern India for the summer.

At first, aside from missing her father, Rakhee is happy enough in India. She makes friends with her cousins and settles into life in the big house with her family. But it doesn't take long until she notices some troubling things: her uncle no longer runs the family hospital, drinking his days away and leaving the administration to a slightly sinister man who visits too frequently for anyone's comfort. She is disturbed by her awareness of her mother's relationship with long-time family friend, Prem, worrying for her father's sake at how close they seem to be growing. And she has been forbidden to venture past a low stone wall into the jungle behind the house because of spirits but when she disobeys, what she finds instead is a deformed girl hidden away from the world in a gorgeous locked garden. There are secrets and things she doesn't understand everywhere Rakhee turns both because she is just a child and because even in India, she is "other," American and a cultural outsider.

Nair's writing is very descriptive, loaded with atmosphere, drawing a lush picture of Southern India and reflecting the slow decline and decay of the once proud Varma family. There is is an enchanted fairy tale feel here. And as in fairy tales, the plot is fairly predictable and simplistic. The characters, as seen through Rakhee's eyes, are almost all one dimensional, and her brief return to India as an adult to find closure and repair the hurts still festering from her long ago summer there doesn't change how the reader views any of the characters because it is too abbreviated to do so. Readers who fancy all things Indian will certainly enjoy this story, filled as it is with love and deceit, secrets and lies.

Thanks to the author for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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