The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Title: The Girl in the Garden
Author: Kamala Nair
Genre: Fiction, multicultural fiction
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, 2011
Source: Received for review from NetGalley

The Girl in the Garden follows the story within a story pattern. The story opens with Rakhee penning a letter to her nameless fiance, telling him she can't marry him until he knows the secrets of her past. She then pens the story of a strange and fateful trip to India with her mother, a depressive and mysterious woman with dark secrets in her past. As Rakhee slowly unravels her mother's secrets, she discovers new dimensions of both beauty and ugliness in her expanding world.

The story is told very simply, but the simplicity adds to the story. We see the events through Rakhee's childish eyes, and everything is magnified. Amma and the garden are not just beautiful, but transcendent and otherworldly. Dev is not just a twisted and disappointed man, but the demon Ravana, trying to match his age and corruption to youthful beauty. Nair's descriptions are lovely - not necessarily novel, but still elegant in their purity and simplicity. "Children darted by swift as multicolored arrows." "An intense silence covered everything like a fresh blanket of snow. Gold filaments of sun flitted through the trees and lay on the forest floor like scattered beads." "Amma reached over my head and swept her hands over the fire, then passed them across her face and hair, as if she were washing herself with the light."

The story itself was also compelling as Nair only revealed small fragments of the story until the climax at the end. Some parts of the mystery were predictable, but the gradual unveiling was still enjoyable. A fairy-tale like quality rested over the narrative, giving it a languid quality that reminded me of Anne of Green Gables - not always surprising, but comfortable and beautiful to read. However, don't let my "comfortable" experience with the writing style fool you - the story deals with some awkward and tense issues, such as incest, infidelity, mental illness, and suicide. The story did have a tendency to wax melodramatic, especially in a few of the revelations toward the end of the book that seemed like unnecessary additions to the heartbreak (this is a trend I am beginning to notice in South Asian literature). However, the end of the story was beautiful and rife with symbols of peace, unity and happiness.

The characters were unique, none of them cookie-cutter stereotypes. Nair described facial features in a way that revealed aspects of their personality, such as Sadhana's razor features revealing the unyielding person beneath. Rakhee's three cousins all had distinct personalities - the sweet personality of Krishna, the cunning and deviousness of Meenu, and the tragic and shy beauty of Gitanjali. I think a good author will always pay attention to minor characters, making them as much their own character as their more prominent players, and I think Nair did excellently with this.

This was a charming story and an enjoyable read. I don't know if I will visit it again, but it was a delightful way to pass a few afternoons. I will be interested to see what debut author Kamala Nair produces in the future.

3.75 stars

Warnings for the sensitive reader: mild allusions to sexuality


  1. When I first started reading the book, I didn't think I was going to like it. In fact, i was a wee bit put off by the narrator. But then, I don't know exactly WHEN, I became entrapped in the story. I thought it was pretty original and totally bought into it.

  2. Excellent Review! I really liked this book and agree that although parts of the mystery were predictable there were still some twists and turns at the end which surprised me.


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