Although The Girl in the Garden begins as a letter from a woman surreptitiously leaving her sleeping fiancée for her ancestral village in order to make peace with her family’s fractured past, even in its decidedly adult themes of morality, fidelity and secrecy it feels like a novel for a younger audience. This isn’t an indictment: Kamala Nair’s debut work contains the romance and magic of many much-loved children’s stories. Its obvious debt to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, in particular, is complemented by its lush Indian backdrop, creating a charming tableau recognizable both in storyline and setting, yet bridging the varied contexts of the two.
Ten-year old Rakhee Singh, born and raised in Minnesota, accompanies her moody, beautiful mother Chitra to the latter’s childhood village in Malanad, Kerala. Chitra, already having spent time in an institution, has grown increasingly erratic since a series of mysterious letters began to arrive. Rakhee intercepts one; later, she sees her mother flushing her medication down the toilet. In the midst of escalating tensions in her marriage to an older, relatively sedate scientist, Chitra decides to return to India for the summer, taking Rakhee with her. The Girl in the Garden is told in Rakhee’s voice – she grows up to be the woman who, echoing her mother’s flight from years before, makes a similar journey to confront the past.
But that journey itself serves as little more than prologue and epilogue: the novel takes place almost entirely within the span of that fateful summer that Chitra and Rakhee spent at Ashoka, the house of the Varma family. Although it is ostensibly the adult Rakhee, writing to her partner, who retells the events of that period, the narrator’s voice contains no trace of hindsight, regret, confusion, irony or the many shades of adult complexity that have compelled her to return to India for the first time since childhood. In almost all ways, this book belongs to that child alone.
Given this, it is unclear why this book hasn’t been pitched overtly toward an adolescent readership, one to whom the subject matter will come as no shock, but whose understanding of the same must be handled delicately (and Nair certainly does so). Not only is this likely to be the audience that might most enjoy it, but in what may be the book’s singular drawback, it is just not as convincing as a work for fiction for adults.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t enjoyable – an undemanding read, the novel zips by in a single sitting, simple yet satisfying. Yet its themes are impossibly heavy: illicit relationships, abuse of power, sociocultural oppression; its events disturbing, on the same scale as those of that other, very famous, book about a disintegrating family during another irrevocable Kerala summer. These themes and events are dealt with very light-handedly, in a manner which – depending on the reader’s tastes – is either refreshingly uncomplicated or unchallengingly facile.
The Girl in the Garden, then, is the perfect embodiment of a fairytale: a story that in actuality is filled with grimness and malevolence, yet strangely has an uplifting, dreamy effect. “There’s something not quite right about this place,” Rakhee’s cousin Krishna says of Ashoka – and it’s true. It’s the home of Chitra’s aging mother and siblings – the alcoholic Vijay, his wife and child, and the abstemious Sadhana, who raises her three daughters as a single mother. It’s a home full of sadness, undercut grandeur, and shame of both social and private variants. Most significantly of all, somewhere in the forest beyond the house lies one of the Varma family’s deepest secrets (though by no means the only one): a small house and a flourishing garden, tended to by a child-woman and her white peacock. It is a miniature paradise, and an entire life, kept under lock and key, encased by boundary walls. And one day, fueled by curiosity and fearless of warning, Rakhee climbs over.
For the young person who reads for pleasure and who has outgrown books written for children, but who has not yet been introduced to contemporary Indian novels in English, Nair’s would make the ideal transition tool. It takes the format of the diasporic generational saga, strips it of adult conflictedness and darkness, injects an element of mystery in a charmingly unpretentious way, and packages it all beautifully in a child’s voice. Where the adult reader may tire of its familiar themes and even its ultimately predictable plotline, for a young reader not yet jaded by the reams of literature of a similar nature, it is certain to be a wondrous, memorable experience.
An edited version appeared in this week’s The Sunday Guardian.