read by Anitha Gandhi
Kamala Nair's debut novel is as lush as the cover. The Girl in the Garden begins with an adult Rahkee (pronounced "rocky") Singh leaving her engagement ring and a long letter to her fiance, explaining why she cannot yet marry him and must go back to India to deal with her past.
The reasons date back to a visit she made there in the summer when she was ten-going-on-eleven.. Her troubled mother, Chitra (whom Rahkee calls Amma, for mother) had been receiving letters from someone back home in Kerala, in the southern part of India, and she decides to take Rahkee with her on a visit. Rahkee, born and bred in Minnesota, doesn't want to leave her father Vikram (whom she calls Aba, for father) behind, especially as her parents are now estranged and she fears a divorce, but she doesn't have any choice.
Rahkee meets her extended family and becomes friends with two cousins, Krishna and Meenu, who are near her age. They've been told not to go beyond the low stone wall surrounding the family home, but Rahkee goes exploring one day and discovers a beautiful garden surrounded by a high wall with a locked gate - and a mysterious girl inside. She also learns bits and pieces about other family mysteries as the summer goes on, ultimately exposing a number of long-kept secrets. Eventually Rahkee has to make a decision that will change the rest of her life - and leave a hole in her heart.
While the magical realism of the plot stretched credibility at times, Nair's vivid descriptions of the setting, culture, and customs, as well as her intriguing characters (both good and bad), kept me going. I figured out pretty quickly part of the secret about the girl in the garden, but part of it was a surprise. The garden itself reminded me a lot of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, and indeed, Nair has stated in interviews and on her website that it was a big influence.
Actress Anitha Gandhi made a wonderful reader of the audiobook. Her voice was perfect for the youthful narrator Rahkee, and she also did an excellent job with the British India accents of Amma's family and friends in Kerala. I also appreciated hearing the correct pronunciation of all the names and places.
Hachette Audio, the producers of the audiobook, are also to be commended for including a PDF of the Varma family tree (near the front of the print book) on the final disc, as well as an interview of Nair by her editor. I wish all audiobook producers would include PDF files of illustrations, maps, diagrams, graphs, charts, footnotes, bibliographies, and other important information from print books on their audiobooks. However, the discs did not include helpful end-of-disc messages, which is a disadvantage.
I don't want to give away the conclusion of the book, but I will say that a letter from one character to Rahkee near the end made me cry. I think this novel would be excellent for a book club discussion.
© Amanda Pape - 2012
[The audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university library and my local public library respectively.]