The Girl in the Garden

I don’t usually pick books by their covers because that’s no way to pick a good book. There are plenty of  compelling tales that don’t have particularly interesting covers. Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, Beloved & Breakfast of Champions are a few of my own books that come to mind. Great stories but the covers (at least on my editions) are not that exciting. However, when Borders announced that it was going out of business and started to close stores in Indy, my husband and I began to circle the shelves with all the other book vultures. We made several trips to several different Borders in the city and the result of one of those trips was a hard cover copy of The Girl in the Garden.

As I type this post, I just am now realizing that when I bought this book, I was listening to Florence and The Machine’s album “Lungs” pretty much non-stop. My favorite track on the album is #12 “Blinding,” which contains the lyric “No more dreaming of the dead as if death itself was undone/
No more calling like a crow for a boy, for a body in the garden.” I know that this is not exactly the title of the book, The Girl in the Garden, but that might have had something to do with the purchase. The second reason was the cover:

Peacocks are lovely. 

The third reason is that the book is set in India and is written by an Indian author. I happen to have read every word Jhumpa Lahiri has ever written and I went and listened to her when she gave the keynote address at AWP last year. I love her beautiful descriptions and her interweaving of Indian culture into her stories, so I thought I might like Kamala Nair’s debut novel.

At the risk of sounding cliche, I couldn’t put this book down. I started it Thursday night around 8:30 and I finished it Friday night around 9:00. The imagery is gorgeous and if you’re a sucker for that kind of writing, which I am, you’re going to eat this up. Trust me. From the beginning of Chapter 4 when our narrator, Rakhee, and her mother arrive in India:

I stayed close to her side as we wove through the sweaty throng to identify our baggage so it could be transported to our connecting flight. Children darted by swift as multicolored arrows. Unsuppressed body odor invaded my nostrils. All around us, barefoot women dressed in identical saris swept the dusty floors, stopping over their long bristled brooms like agile, purple winged insects.

And later, when Rakhee and her mother arrive at the family home, Ashoka:

Rough weeds rose from the earth and encircled my bare ankles as I tumbled over the wall and landed on the other side. I brushed the dirt from my knees and got to my feet. It was not so scary now, in broad daylight. The trees and bushes shone an electric green. I glanced up. The branches of the tallest trees bowed under the weight of their leaves, forming an arched ceiling above the forest floor, and I felt as if I had entered a church. Through the intricate, screenlike pattern of leaves I could see patches of bold blue sky with not a cloud in sight.

The story is also intriguing. There are a lot of characters to keep track of and at first that can be a little overwhelming, but Nair does a good job of balancing narrative with all of this beautiful imagery. As our protagonist, Rakhee is compelling and we are immediately endeared to her brave, wise character. She is smart and perceptive and incredibly frustrated with the adults in the story. This is a plot built around secrets and they reveal themselves slowly, so it makes it extra hard being a child narrator. However, the story is not all doom and gloom either. This is a story about love, specifically about the love between families and how it has not only the power to destroy relationships, but also the power to heal them.

It’s a beautifully written book and a fast read. If you like stories about families and strong female characters, check it out. And it has a great cover.

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