Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

Tell it to the Trees begins with a richly suspenseful scene where thirteen-year-old Varsha Dharma discovers a frozen body outside her home in the town of Merrit’s Point, BC. Who is the dead woman? How did she arrive at her death? (And: what a solid opening hook.)

The Dharma family consists of the grandmother Akka, who came from India to Canada upon her marriage and the father Vikram, whose abuse drives his first wife to flee leaving behind their  young daughter Varsha. Vikram subsequently marries the docile Suman, and Varsha, who fears abandonment by this (new) mother as well, vows to keep the family together despite the fractures caused by the father’s violence.

Frustratingly, the impact of Badami’s valuable message about domestic abuse–the complicity of those who look away, the conspiracies of silence in abusive marriages and the resulting damage upon children, and violence in turn begetting violence—is diluted by her prose. One of the pleasures of reading an accomplished novel is the sense the author trusts us to meet her halfway, and compared to Badami’s prior work (three novels  including Tamarind Mem, which I liked very much, and The Hero’s Walk, which won the Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), this fourth novel often feels curiously heavy-handed and repetitive. For instance, Varsha remarks,  “Nothing makes him [her father] more heartbroken than to beat my naughtiness out of me…He is doing it for my own good, after all, he has no desire to see me turn into my mother.”  And a few pages later, “Poor Papa, it’s not his fault that he has to be hard with me sometimes. I know he’s worried I’ll turn out like my real mother.”

Furthermore, Tell it to the Trees breaks no new ground in analyzing the cultural scripts of South Asian immigrants, who often prioritize social status and family cohesion over personal happiness; instead, we are treated to elementary lessons on arranged marriages, dowry deaths and subjugated women, all in overwrought yet unsatisfying detail. Consider this paragraph where Suman describes her friend Lalli’s marriage.

“…Lalli was packed off with a dowry of five lakh rupees and two dozen gold bangles and a Godrej refrigerator and a motorbike for her husband, only to end up hanging from the rafters of her new home, the mehendi from her wedding still wet on her palms. Her in-laws wailed and beat their breasts and said that a mentally ill girl had been passed on to them without their knowledge, but the rumors that swept around the gullies were that her mother-in-law wanted more gold bangles and her father-in-law wanted an air conditioner and her new husband wanted a car instead of a scooter. When Lalli’s father refused to oblige, her in-laws strung her up like a criminal hung for murder. “

Upon reading this, I wrote “too easy” in the margin of my text.

Also contributing to my disenchantment was the dreaded explaining note (infesting so much immigrant writing) creeping in. “…to celebrate a  festival called Karva Chauth when prayers were sent up to the god Shiva…”  Surely we’ve passed the stage where readers must be told Karva Chauth is a festival? That Shiva is a god? (And doesn’t sending a prayer imply a god at the other end anyway?)

In all fairness, the scenes set in India (that so aggravated me ) comprise less than a fifth of the book, and Badami’s  descriptions are far more measured and sure-footed when the narrative takes place in Canada–she nails  the novel cruelty of a Canadian winter for the newly-arrived, for instance. And in the second half, when Badami stops educating the reader and gets on with storytelling, the book comes alive.  The characterization takes off,  the tension picks up, and the narrative acquires a satisfying momentum leading to a an emotionally charged, vibrant finish. When Varsha repudiates the impotency of childhood with a steely determination to prevail, it made me shiver.  Tell it to the Trees is  an adeptly plotted, beautifully structured work about an important issue, but in the final reckoning, I was unable to embrace it fully. Sigh.

***

Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Knopf Canada, 2011

A much shorter version of this review appears in Herizons magazine.

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7 responses to “Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

  1. Too bad that it starts off less well, and yes, the explaining really frustrates me as well. If people don’t know, they can just google it. That’s what we expect people to do with things about Christianity if they’re not Christian.

  2. Always tricky, being conscious of an audience, necessitating the explanations that can end up jarring a narrative. Maybe a glossary is the place for them. Liked the cover photo.

    • Yes, but isn’t there enough of a history and a precedent not to fall into this trap? And her other work isn’t quite as jarring. I was so very frustrated.
      I liked the cover too!

  3. I was quite interested in reading this book when it came out, but then forgot about it – reading your review has been very helpful, though I’m not sure I do want to read it. Even though there’s a great deal about other cultures (not just Asian ones) that I’m not familiar with, I don’t like having my hand held, and I don’t like it when authors go for easy stereotypes as a kind of short-cut to their message. I recently read a novel by a British woman set in Germany, and had a similar feeling. Give readers some credit! You learn more – and understand better – when things aren’t dumbed-down.

    One of my biggest pet peeves is how publishers, especially (maybe only??) American ones, change things in books to make them more American, even when they’re set in other countries, because they assume American readers won’t understand and are too stupid to try. How insulting is that?!

  4. This book was so eerily reminiscent of “Crow Lake”.