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The Girl in the Garden

by Kamala Nair

Grand Central Publishing | June 2011 | 320 pages | $24.99

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

Kamala Nair

The Girl in the Garden is a lush, lovely first novel by Kamala Nair. Set in the southern tip of India, the story is a part fairy tale, and part coming-of-age novel that combines elements of myth and gothic romance, in a combination that is deliciously compelling. It is a taut book that still manages to have many overlapping stories and mysteries. The threads of these stories are beautifully woven by Nair, who traces the past, while rendering the present.

Rakhee Singh is the heroine of The Girl in the Garden. Her story begins in Minnesota where she feels like a misfit with her dark skin, thick glasses, and toothpick-skinny legs. As many pre-teens—she is eleven—she longs to fit in. At the same time, she is drawn to and curious about her "exotic" mother's past.

Her mother, Chitri, has never revealed why she left India and came to the United States. Rakhee is both intrigued and disgusted by the flashes of the unfamiliar side of her mother that she witnesses from time to time. While her mother remains mysterious, her father—a scientist also from India—remains as steadfast as a sturdy oak. To complicate matters, Chitri suffers from depression, although Rakhee doesn't know how to define the fits of excruciating sadness her mother endures.

What makes a narration compelling? Why are we drawn to or turned off (to put it bluntly) by a particular voice or style? My father finishes most books he starts; I used to be that way until I discovered that it was acceptable (by my standards) to judge a book by the first couple of pages. You should see the stacks I leave behind at Barnes & Noble. Every once in a while, though, there is a book that ensnares me from the very beginning. I believe it has to do with the elusive pact between author and reader, claiming, "This is important, here is a story. Listen."

I felt this with The Girl in the Garden. The first lines of The Girl in the Garden are, "By the time you read this I will be flying over the Atlantic on my way to India. You will have woken up alone and found the diamond ring I left on the bedside table, and beneath it, this stack of papers you now hold…"

Although these lines are by no means flashy, I am immediately interested in the story. Why is this person flying away? What is the stack of papers she refers to? I—a person who has read voraciously for years, a reader who can be jaded, and a reader who doesn't read what she doesn't like anymore—was drawn in as if I were a child engaged in a fairy tale.

This book so reminded me of Jane Eyre that I had to revisit one of my favorite books and see how it opened. The first lines of Jane Eyre are: "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning… I was glad of it. I never liked long walks…" This opening also may seem mundane to a certain extent—after all, the narrator is just talking about walking, but much is conveyed within these first sentences. For example, we surmise that the heroine is stubborn—"I was glad of it. I never liked long walks."

We also get a hint of the societal constraints that will be pressed upon Jane. As in Jane Eyre, The Girl in the Garden mixes realism with fairy tales. Jane Eyre houses a mad woman in the attic; in The Girl in the Garden a lonesome girl is hidden for a variety of reasons from the world in a lush garden, cut off from society. Both Jane and Rahkee are eventually confronted by the knowledge of this victim. Both must choose how to free the female victim and in doing so, free themselves.

But I get ahead of myself. Back to our girlish heroine with her dog Merlin and the simple pleasures she enjoys (she is an artist) back in Minnesota. When her mother receives a mysterious letter from India, Rahkee's world is turned inside out. Her mother forces her daughter to accompany her to India.

Kamala Nair beautifully describes Rahkee's arrival in India, beginning with her mother's transformation: "In the bathroom Amma changed into a buttercup-yellow sari and painted a red raindrop on her forehead with a bottle that she produced from her purse… I loved seeing that transformation, from my regular mother who took out the trash each morning with a bulky coat flung over her nightgown to this wondrous creature. From the moment she put on the sari and released her hair from its bun so that it streamed down her back in a lustrous river, she appeared younger and more natural."

This observation begs a central question in the novel—How well do we know the ones we love? It also makes Rahkee realize that her mother has loved more people than herself and her father. By examining the lost potential in her mother, Rahkee gains strength. Rahkee herself ends up acting with spectacular bravery and heart.

The ancestral home itself is called Ashoka—meaning "without grief" in Sanskrit, though the house is actually full of sadness (Rahkee will slowly uncover why). The house is also the grandest one in the village because her grandfather was an unparalleled doctor who built a hospital for the locals. In the house lives Rahkee's aged grandmother, her two aunts, an uncle, and two cousins whom she will become close to. Also omnipresent is the strange, creepy Dev, with his stuttering and power over the family. Rahkee cannot understand why the ugly man has a hold of the family and why they treat him with such respect, though it is apparent they despise him. And then there is Prem, the dignified man who sent the letters. It is soon apparent that Rahkee's mother may still be in love with him.

I mentioned earlier the hidden girl in her garden castle, hidden away much like the familiar fairy tale of Rapunzel. The girl is hidden behind the house in the woods. Rahkee's cousins have been forbidden to ever enter the forest—their mother has told them fairy tales about witches who live in the woods. The girls don't dare set foot in the woods. But Rahkee—perhaps because she has grown up in America—isn't as obedient. One day she leaves her cousins behind to explore. In one marvelous scene she chases a dragonfly with a string attached to it—the work of the "girl in the garden."

When she finally meets the girl in the garden, it is love at first sight between the two of them, though Rahkee knows she could be severely punished by her aunt for disobeying her. Although the girl's world is a paradise, she is also secluded and unhappy, though she doesn't realize she is unhappy. Rahkee risks everything to visit her new friend.

One thing I liked about this book was the fact that the adults were not always to be trusted. We like to think of the adults around us as providing security. In this book—like in a fairy tale such as the wicked stepmother in Hansel and Gretel—the adults often act selfishly. Toward the end of the book, when things start to break down because of Rahkee's forthrightness, the adults actually start to behave almost criminally. Rahkee is scared for her life as she tries to free the girl from the tyranny of grownups. Yet all along the adults think they are acting "for her own good."

If this all sounds rather vague, it is purposely, for I could not bear to give away the mysteries in this book. In fact, there are so many mysteries twisting around that it is hard to keep track of them all. At times I felt This is too much!, but really it is more fun to read a book with these surprising twists and turns than a more docile novel. As my fiction writing teacher used to say, "This needs one more twist." Just as you think you know where the book is heading there's another curve in the narrative. The only quibble I have with the book is the pacing—sometimes things happen almost too fast. When Rahkee becomes friends with the girl in the garden, it is an instant infatuation. But then again, the book is more fairy tale than realistic fiction.

In spite of its outlandish nature, Nair does a wonderful job with "realistic" points in the book. In one chapter, Nair menstruates for the first time. The embarrassment and pride that ensues on Rahkee's part is dead-on. The book is chaotic in the sense that is filled with shocking revelations, suicide, death, and psychotic behavior, but there are some moments of respite within the heavily plotted story. One afternoon Rahkee lies by the bank of the river and falls asleep. As dusk comes, she is awoken and nearly forgets who she is as she stumbles from dreamtime into real time. In Nair's shimmering, brave novel, she elegantly blurs the distinction between the two.

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