Review of Kamala Nair's 'Girl in the Garden'

May 25, 2011

There is a ghost, a yekshi, that haunts the well behind the temple. So confides an older cousin to eleven-year-old Rakhee Singh, the narrator and protagonist of Kamala Nair's wistful debut novel, The Girl in the Garden.

Rakhee doesn't believe the yekshi really exists. Nonetheless, she is scared to perform her cousin's dare: to walk over to the haunted well and to touch it.

Nair explores this notion of facing demons (both imaginary and real), skillfully if sometimes sentimentally, in a hybrid narrative that is part fairytale and part coming-of-age story. Only, not everything is as it seems: the fairytale leads darkly to a burned down garden; and it's sometimes the adults, rather than the children, who must learn to come of age.

To start this hybrid tale, Nair introduces, in simple strokes, an adult Rakhee -- affianced, on the cusp of success, and burdened with a family secret, one she's kept from her fiancé (a “wonderful man,” she calls him) and most others in her current life. An old-fashioned aerogram from overseas (and on it, handwriting that she instantly recognizes), is the gunshot at the beginning of a race. When Rakhee receives it, she drops everything, including the ring her fiancé has given her, and hops a night flight to India, where her secret has its roots. She leaves him a written explanation that tells the story of a childhood summer spent in her mother's hometown in India, the summer she first discovered her family's secret.

That summer, we learn that Rakhee sees a man who shouldn't be treated like a king, treated like one. Unrelated to the family but mysteriously entangled in it, he is loathed by the children of the household, who feel their skin crawl even as their elders inexplicably tolerate his crude familiarity and his sleek smile. And there are other curious, even chilling, things: The forest behind the family's house is off limits because there reportedly resides a terrible flesh-eating creature. Her mother and her aunt both sob behind doors. With a child's intuition that something is not right, Rakhee becomes a brazen sleuth. She is fun to follow.

Author Kamala Nair

Because it's a story about family secrets, the twists of the plot should be left to be untangled by readers. But know that there is in fact a girl and also a garden. Know too, that there are several frames within which the girl and the garden are centered: in one she is a princess, in another she is a sister, and in another -- in the most adultish and most misguided of these narrative frames -- she is simply a mistake, the very mistake that has spawned a multigenerational secret. The garden, should readers be curious, is beautiful, but then becomes less and less so.

Occasionally, the narrative proceeds a tad unevenly, one foot in a fantastical world and the other clumsily holding ground in the real one. Sometimes, too, descriptors take over like undergrowth gone wild -- I found myself at those moments wanting the simple image, with less of the plumage.

But what Nair does manage to convey very effectively throughout are those slight differences in a child's perspective that can quite vigorously change the shading of a situation, from placid to uneasy. When young Rakhee, her investigations halted by the death of the family matriarch, attends the funeral, she notices one adult hand, then a different one, on her shoulder, guiding her toward the body of her grandmother, or toward the food. It's a small and lovely moment, her noticing of the hands, but there's a sense of disquiet as well with these guiding hands -- hands that belong to adults who themselves need a measure of guidance, who are struggling to deal with their own demons.

Jane Y. Kim is a journalist and fiction writer who lives in Brooklyn. She works at Kaya Press.