The Girl in the Garden

Recently, I received an email from a former student who had lovely things to say about her memories of my classroom, but who was also a few days away from her debut novel’s publication day—always exciting…and a bit surreal.  I’m excited to introduce both the novel and the author to you.  I’ve already read the book, and I’m highly recommending it.  The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair.  [The link to the book, the book trailer, and Kamala’s contact information is at the end of this post.]

Ostensibly, the novel is a coming-of-age story, rife with secrets that would tear any family apart.  But really, it’s a tender look at growing older and wiser, yanking those secrets into the light of day, so they won’t haunt you for the rest of your life.  It’s about standing up to those who are liars and abusers, saying, “I refuse to do the same.”  Freedom only stems from such rigorous self-evaluation.

This makes the novel sound deathly somber, and the book is anything but.  True, lives are at stake, but the storytelling is deft, the prose is beautiful, and the setting (India) is foreign, so it makes for a fast-paced read.

Kamala graciously agreed to an interview.  How lucky are we?  [Current and future writers: Gobble up all her advice; it’s hard-earned.]

What inspired you to write The Girl in the Garden?

I became inspired to write The Girl in the Garden during a family trip to India. I was in the rural village in the south where my father grew up, a place I had visited many times as a child. The lush jungles surrounding my father’s childhood home had always struck me as a magical place to set a story. One night I accompanied some relatives to the village temple after sunset. When we got to the temple, which was illuminated by flickering torches, one of my cousins pulled me aside and pointed out a field with an ancient-looking stone well at its center. She told me there was a superstition in the village that the well was haunted by a ghost, and that no one dared tear it down. Later that night I dreamed about that field and the well, but in my dream I also saw a tree with branches covered in red flowers, and there were two little girls huddled under the tree. That image captured my imagination. I wanted to know who those little girls were and why they were under that tree. I started writing, and the story evolved from that single arresting image.

How would you, as the author, describe The Girl in the Garden to someone who is discovering you for the first time?

The Girl in the Garden is a dark fairytale/family drama about a young woman named Rakhee Singh who revisits in memory the events of a pivotal summer in her childhood when she goes to India and discovers frightening secrets about her family, particularly her mother. The adult Rakhee, the story’s narrator, is about to be married and realizes she cannot move forward with her life in an honest way until she confronts her past. It’s ultimately a story about a young girl’s coming-of-age and the deep complicated love between a mother and daughter, with a mystery at its heart.

The plot of The Girl in the Garden revolves around myriads of family secrets and lies heavily guarded over the years.  In your opinion, what is the difference between a secret and a lie?

The mysteries in The Girl in the Garden start out as secrets, but as the story progresses, they turn into an elaborate web of lies. I understand the motivation of the adults to hide the truth, even though I disagree with it. Their motivation is to protect their children by shielding them from reality. As the characters’ lives begin to spin out of control, the children directly ask the adults what is going on, and the adults lie to their faces. Here the motivation to protect has turned into stubbornness, selfishness, and pride…I think this is the point where the secrets turn into blatant lies.

Rakhee does several brave things in the novel, but her biggest moment of bravery, I think, begins the book.  How do you think a person who faces his or her past honestly can alter his or her life?  In other words, if a person cannot (or refuses to), how might that affect him or her adversely?

The purpose of Rakhee’s brave act at the beginning of the novel, which is her decision to tell her fiancé the truth about her family and her past, is to show how the mistakes of one generation do not have to be repeated by the next. By embracing the truth, Rakhee and her cousins have the hope of redemption. Rakhee realizes that if she doesn’t face her past, and if she continues keeping secrets from those she loves the most, just as her mother did, then she will never be able to have a happy future. The consequences of a person who cannot, or refuses to, confront his or her past, are evident in the novel through the experience of Amma, Rakhee’s mother. Amma’s desire to run from her past is ultimately a selfish act because it ends up devastating many people, including her daughter.

Which part of researching The Girl in the Garden was the most interesting to you?  Did you learn anything new?

I did a lot of research on the plant and animal life in Kerala, which is the tiny state in the south of India where the story is set. I really wanted to get those details right. Many of the flowers and birds described in the novel are ones I had seen and remembered from my visits, but I had never known their names. So that was interesting and something new I learned. I also researched many of the traditions and rituals, such as the ceremony surrounding a death in a family. I have never witnessed a Hindu funeral in Kerala, and found those details fascinating and incredibly poetic.

If readers would like to read up on India and/or its culture, what other books would you suggest?

I am a big believer in learning about different worlds through reading fiction. I’ve learned so much more about early 19th-century British society by reading Jane Austen than through a history book. Plus it’s a lot more fun. Some novels about India I would recommend are The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Those are favorites of mine, and they all introduce readers to different aspects of Indian culture and life.

What book(s) are you reading now?   What authors would you name as strong influences?

I recently finished reading Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien and The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, both of which I loved. As a writer I have been influenced by 19th-century British writers, especially the Brontë sisters and Mary Shelley. I love that gothic sensibility. Also, Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. Edna O’Brien is one of my heroes. I am a big fan of Irish literature, and her work has been hugely inspiring.

Do you have advice for other writers?

Read as much fiction as you can. That is the best way to learn and to continue growing as a writer. And if writing professionally is something you really want to do, treat it seriously, like job you must do every day, no excuses.

What’s next?  Or is it a secret?

I’m working on a second novel. The topic is still a “secret” because I’m afraid I’ll spoil the magic by talking about it too soon. But I will say it’s very different from The Girl in the Garden.

Kamala Nair’s information:

The Girl in the Garden information:
Publisher’s site
The Girl in the Garden at Amazon
The Girl in the Garden trailer

[Post image: The Girl in the Garden, partial cover]


  1. Laura (Booksnob)
    Jun 29, 2011

    OMG, I am going to be reviewing this book at the end of the July. Is the author a Minnesotan?
    Maybe she would want to be my author in the spotlight in August.

  2. Elissa
    Jun 29, 2011


    I’m sure she would. I’ll give Kamala your contact info, okay? Hope you’re doing well…

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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