The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


The Girl in the Garden
Dev was not a tall man; in fact, he was slight of stature. But somehow when he entered the room he seemed to control, to possess, everything inside -- the furniture, the walls, the inhabitants. He came to the house for dinner that night, and when I stumbled in with Krishna and Meenu, our hands and feet dirty from playing cricket in the front yard, I instantly knew it was the man whom Krishna disliked.

Rakhee Singh had it all. She'll soon be graduating from Yale's, and starting a promising job. She has a wonderful family and is engaged to the man she loves. But she has a secret - something that still bothers her, something that happened when she was eleven and on her very first trip to India with her mother. Since then, her parents had separated and the events of that summer forever hung like a shroud over her. The Girl in the Garden is the story of that summer and Rakhee's subsequent efforts to come to terms with that event.

There really wasn't anything I knew about this book on accepting it, except that it features a garden (duh, title!) and was set in India. That was a big risk for me, but this year, I had challenged my reading tastes so much, that I knew I would welcome the risk. Moreover, I recognized the author's surname to be from my home state, and that made me a bit giddy with excitement. I didn't know yet where exactly it was set in India, but that was soon revealed in the second chapter (Kerala).

I usually shy away from reading books set in India, because I typically have plenty of issues with them, irrespective of who the author is. Mostly, the customs almost always feel as if viewed by a non-Indian, even when the protagonist was Indian or of Indian origin, or the language is a caricature in itself as if all Indians spoke a funny English. And sometimes, when the setting was very rural India, the conversations in English feel very fake (although I can't think of a way around this). On that note, I thought Rakhee's world in Kerala was almost authentic. Although I did have some issues with the portrayal here (I'll get to that), for the most part, I could sync well with the characters.

Rakhee, as the eleven year old girl, was very charming and believable. We don't really see much of her in the present for her to make an impression. The culture shock she experienced on the first trip to India, the easy way in which her mother had settled down causing Rakhee to feel as if she couldn't connect with her mother at all, her cautious excitement on seeing so many people who look more like her than she had ever seen in the US. (I remember my five year old niece, who stays in LA, a place she loves, was absolutely exalted and exuberant when she landed in India and saw all these people who looked like her, so this is something I understand as significant from a child's perspective.) I appreciated that the author played all these elements very well - the curiosity of exploring a new place, the automatic bravery that a child feels contrasted with the fear that creeps in when meeting certain not-so-nice adults. I also loved how the author used "Indian English" (most of the words are what Indians typically use as opposed to their American version).

Rakhee was a typical first generation American kid. She was having trouble fitting in at school. She rarely got invitations to parties at the homes of her classmates, she mostly kept to herself. Her father was a hard-working doctor, her mother worked part-time at a store. One day, her mother gets a strange letter all the way from India. Rakhee is intrigued by it, but doesn't get any answers. That letter however sets the motion for the trip to India.

Kamala Nair
I, however, found Rakhee's character very inconsistent. My understanding was that her knowledge of the local language was decent, which made me wonder how she followed most conversations. I can say for sure that not many people (esp in rural villages) will speak English. There were times when she expressed her inability to understand but most times, she didn't have any trouble following. There was also some amount of repetition - not consistent enough for me to attribute it to a very young character, but often enough for it to feel jarring. I guess that was probably for the benefit of remembering what some Malayalam (Kerala's language) words or customs mean.

Another issue I had was how conveniently a lot of the adults seem to be spilling out their inner fears and desires to Rakhee. Now, I have to say that this is not a strange thing at all, at least from where I come. I grew up on a very delicious amount of adult gossips and even before I was 15, I already knew the secret tales of half the family and most of the neighbors. While the adults do shush around kids, that lasts for about 5 minutes. Serious! So I didn't think this was out of the ordinary - Rakhee listening to a lot of stuff. I just couldn't fathom why any of the adults would pool out their troubles on her plate (other than for moving the story along).

The Girl in the Garden, being a story of a world seen by an eleven-year old, has plenty of references of mythic gods and goddesses, ghosts and devils. While Rakhee sensed that most or all of those were just tales, she was still fascinated by them. The story of the devil who stayed in the garden behind their house, scared her the most, but she was also curious enough to want to explore. And that's what actually starts the main plot in the book, when she meets a certain someone out there. I enjoyed this part of the story, though I found a lot of the events very unrealistic. I could however say that the author chose a dreamy, fairy-tale-ish manner to portray something that actually happens in a very dark manner (those who read this book would understand this convoluted sentence I just wrote).

Overall, I recommend this book, especially because I enjoyed the cultural references. The story didn't make much of an impression on me, but the characters were wonderful, especially the younger ones. Most of the older ones seemed too selfish, too self-centered, but every kid thinks that. I thought the mystery in the book had a nice twist to it, but in the end, it felt like a long convoluted mystery. But then that's very true of a lot families. We still pay for the actions of some of our ancestors. In the end, this book covered plenty of themes, was a very fast read and I also happened to find it hard to put it down.

I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


16 comments:

Misha said...

I have read very few books set in India (shame on me!). I had heard of this book but didn't know that it's set in Kerala, which is one of my favorite places! I think I will read this book just for the setting. All the adults pouring their hearts out to Rakhee does seem a bit unrealistic though.

occasionallyzen said...

Enjoyed your review - very interesting to hear your thoughts on the cultural details and what resonated with you as realistic or believable. Sounds like the characters made it worthwhile.

hcmurdoch said...

I really do enjoy books set in India, but somehow this one doesn't seem like a good one for me. Perhaps because of the Shantaram read-along I am feeling "India'ed out" :-)

zibilee said...

I also enjoy books on India, but your reservations about this one have me thinking that it might not be for me. I just finished an Indian fiction book that I didn't really like, so I am more likely to be picky with the next one I read. Thanks for the eloquent and thoughtful review. I enjoyed it.

Lena said...

Great review. You always have very interesting books for review. It sounds interesting, but I don't think I would've been able to believe the adults just spilled out their troubles to a teenager. And most of them, not just one? So, I may have had trouble with this one.

Athira / Aths said...

I haven't read many books set in India either. I find myself very hesitant to try them.

Athira / Aths said...

Thanks! The characters were lovely and that kind of made it easier to enjoy this one. I am glad that this one synced with me culturally.

Athira / Aths said...

Haha! That is so funny! I can understand that - I can't read too many back-to-back books with the same setting either. And Shantaram counts as 3 books!

Athira / Aths said...

Yeah, there were things that didn't work for me. I may not have read this had I known of them in advance, but I'm glad that the cultural parts of it were consistent.

Athira / Aths said...

I know, that's something I did find hard to accept - there was just too many secrets and troubles being shared.

Jeff Rivera said...

It is true that sometimes it is quite hard to grasp the cultural differences when it comes to foreign authors, but this gives me perspective to their way of life. I gives you more understanding to cultures that are alien to us and eventually we would understand them.

Bibliophilebythesea said...

Most of the reviews seem favorable, but I am still on the fence. I do like the sound of this one, and like books that take place in India as well, so maybe I will give it a try.

Athira / Aths said...

Oh, I have no issue reading books by authors in foreign countries - in that case, the experience typically matches up. It's the native authors that I have more issue with (and just with Indian authors). It's not that I can't relate to the authors, but sometimes, I still end up feeling like a foreigner in the book, which I don't want to feel - does that make sense?

Athira / Aths said...

I will be curious to hear your thoughts on this one. I was pretty much on the fence too, and while I liked it, I didn't love it.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

So ... not perfect, but worth reading. Sounds like a good pick for the summer for me.

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Athira / Aths said...

Yeah, that pretty much sums it well. It is certainly a good summer read and the fast-pacing helps.