It is impossible to turn away from this story once begun, so be forewarned and prepared to read it in one sitting. Though this is only to feel the loneliness of missing a great friend, and to want to begin all over again. Unlike many big stories that try the reader’s patience with unnecessary details, Nair’s novel efficiently contains a multi-generational family saga, loves, deaths, secrets, ruin, and rebirth. We feel the thrill (and terror) of the heroine’s explorations in a new world, of her discovery of her mother’s devastating deception, and finally of her catharsis in learning to let judgment evolve into compassion and a return to the people and places that almost destroyed her family.
Rakhee Singh leaves a letter for her fiancee along with her engagement ring before heading off to India. The letter explains that she has been keeping secrets from him, and that she must return to India to resolve some things that happened there when she was eleven. That summer, while traveling with her mother, Rakhee is introduced to a whole new world which is much different than the life she leads in Minnesota. When she arrives in India with her mother there are a plethora of family secrets that Rakhee plans to solve. Who wrote the letters that drove her mother to make the decision to return to India? Is there really a child-eating monster hiding in the jungle behind the home of her ancestors? What she discovers will shape the person she becomes and will force her to return to her family years later to put this baggage to rest before she can marry the man she loves.
The originality and beauty of The Girl in the Garden, its wonderful strangeness, and its lifelong friendship with the reader, lie in the heroine’s narrative deftness in subtly yet wholly altering the reader’s expectations and perceptions of the two worlds of the novel. Nair sharply contrasts the whited sepulcher of Plainfield, in a Midwest as cold and colorless and alienating as its name, with Malanad, a South Indian village as warm and riotously hued and vital as the Indian myths that Rakhee’s cousins, her first real friends–particularly the bright, bold, brilliant Krishna–enact for their shy American visitor.
These stories come to signify the sheer force of living that Rakhee has been denied, and has begun to deny herself, as the neglected child of parents imprisoned within their own tragic pasts. They revive her dormant sense of self, and with keen psychological insight into how children perceive their world, Nair shows the therapeutic power of storytelling in helping Rakhee to make sense of the confusing behavior of her mother, of her mother’s family, and finally of the devastating secret they have conspired to conceal since before she was born.
Her childhood chronicle is a tone poem startling for its crescendoes of titanic discoveries and confrontations, yet written largely from the quiet wonder of a child’s daily explorations and introspections in deciphering, again, the strangeness of growing into oneself.
The magic moment, when the novel ceased to be a compelling mystery about Rakhee’s summer journey to India to discover the source of her mother’s unhappiness, and became a timeless story that has been told and will always be told, simple yet coiled in complexities vast and deep, came over me as Rakhee observes the incandescent coastline of Kerala from her airplane window. She is awed before so much that is beautiful and beyond her comprehension. Her world, our world, begins to expand to admit the history of a family that stalks softly, under the guise of this impossible beauty, as they unsheath the brutality that will destroy all their old complacencies and lies, making space, finally and gently, for resilience and reconstruction, grace and forgiveness.
For a debut, The Girl in the Garden is fairly accomplished, but that is mostly due to the last quarter of the novel. Everything leading up to the end is averagely lukewarm, predictable and uninspired, until Rakhee makes the decision to follow her head and heart instead of her relative’s orders. Her actions deeply affect the lives of her relatives and the novel becomes the dark and mysteriously lush tale it claims to be.
The Girl in the Garden is perfect for that long flight, that incessantly rainy afternoon or simply when you want to get lost in a beautifully written book that will spirit you away. Turn your phone off and disable your doorbell, because nothing can tear you away from The Girl in the Garden.