Book Review: “Sister of My Heart”, a Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

>> Monday, February 15, 2010

By Ajay Pradhan | February 15, 2010

This is a late review. The book was published eleven years ago in 1999 by Doubleday. Yet, I hadn’t heard of the author until this month, even though I have seen the movie “Mistress of Spices”, based on her novel by the same title. After reading the book, I read a number of reviews of the novel. I wanted to see what other readers, critics and reviewers thought of the novel, especially the author’s style. Most reviews I read gave positive review of the novel and extolled the
author’s gift of writing. But, I didn’t find in those reviews what I was looking for—her style and the beautiful employment of fiction metaphors and similes. Therefore, I decided to write this review.

The story is about two young women, Anju and Sudha, who are cousins, who grow up together, and who are born on the same day, the day both of their fathers die in suspicious circumstances in the predator-infested thick mangrove jungles of the Sundarbans. Despite the element of mystery and curiosity about the death of the fathers, this is not a mystery novel. It’s not a genre or popular fiction. It’s far from being a commercial fiction. The circumstances of the girls’ fathers’ death, therefore, is not the main line of the story, but only a critical foundation which thrusts the two girls to a lifetime of bonding as it does their mothers, Gouri Ma and Aunt N, and an aunt, Pishi, who all live in the same house as a close-knit family. With fathers dead and no other male members in the family, the upper-class Calcutta family of three women and two girls forms the central unit of the story. The story is about the relationship and bonding between Anju and Sudha, whose love and affection for each other is full of selfless sacrifice, open truthfulness, mutual dependence, cathartic devotion, and, at times, with slight jealousy. The author adeptly traces the story of the two young women from their childhood to their womanhood, as told in first-person narrative alternately by Anju and Sudha. Each is the sister of the heart of the other.

This review is, however, not so much about the story itself as it is about the author’s writing style. The novel is a literary fiction. The story is driven, as are all literary fictions, more by characters than by plot. Some acerbic commentators hint that literary fiction is a neologism and, despite the poetic and lyrical metaphors and similes that enhance the elegance of prose, makes the story unreadable. Notwithstanding, the generally accepted notion that literary fiction is the work of superior intellectual mettle than are those of genre, popular or commercial fiction. I do not agree that literary fiction is mostly unreadable. I believe those who make such harsh and unfair judgment are those who wish to read in literary fiction what are essentially the domain of commercial or genre fiction—stories essentially driven by plot. I do not imply that genre or commercial fiction are any less better (I actually enjoy them, whether Frederick Forsyth’s international political and crime intrigues or John Grisham’s legal suspense in the suburbia of America); I only say that Divakaruni’s work stands in a category that is obviously different from commercial fiction.

Divakaruni artfully tells the story in narratives full of similes and metaphors. Her prose is lyrical and is poetic. Divakaruni’s liberal and artful use of metaphors, which is mostly used in poetry, paints the story with a poet’s mind. She is, in fact, an award-winning poet (which I learn from the author’s introduction in the book). Divakaruni’s prose reads like poetry, even without verse. Her use of trope or figure of speech, while making sure they don’t sound trite, makes the story warm and pleasurable reading.

Divakaruni is an exceptional writer. But, of course, she is not the first literary fiction writer who liberally uses metaphors as prose style. Norman Mailer, a literary giant, for example, is a master storyteller who packs metaphors in his stories. Divakaruni’s use of metaphors, drama and passionately living characterization reveal her exquisite cognitive ability to observe or imagine lives in intimate and rich details and tell them in a way that makes readers feel they are not only observing a story but are, in fact, in the story. Her ability to engage readers is amazing.

One of Divakaruni’s unique style is that she creates her own metaphors that are at once meaningful to readers, instead of using the ones that have existed and been used by others (e.g., “bright as pomegranate juice” to describe a smile, or “my mouth is crowded with gravel” to describe how the narrator feels the need to retort to something she doesn’t like, or “the sun paints the wall golden” to tell the reader that the sun has shone in the room, or “smooth as molasses” to describe the smoothness of spoken words). This metaphorology is Divakaruni’s gift to readers, in addition to the story itself. This style adds additional dimension to Divakaruni’s skill as an author—that of a linguist using semiotics, symbolism and, to some extent, mysticism of words and phrases. She deftly spares the readers of archaism in her style, maintaining the high level of reader engagement and interest from beginning to the end. She elevates the work of storytelling to an art form.

Divakaruni weaves into the story elements of conflict as part of the story structure that keeps the readers engaged. The conflicts in her story are based more on characters than on plots. As a reader, I felt as though I was in the same room while the protagonists were engrossed in conversation, oblivious of my presence. She introduces element of curiosity, if not mystery, into the story in the early part of the story as a conflict that she resolves only near the end of the story (when Sudha, along with her infant daughter, Dayita, are on their plane flight to America). Between this early conflict and the eventual resolution, there is a lot of action in characterization. The characters in her story drive the plot.

This is Divakaruni's first and only novel that I’ve had the pleasure of reading so far. It’s an emotional story that has an intellectual impact like such that a linguist and author with rich imagination can make. I liked the book for its warmth depiction of female bonding amidst complexities of life and wondered why I hadn’t heard of the author before, much less read any of her novels. Although literary fictions are not the primary source of information about cross-cultures; this novel provides a literary vehicle for cross-cultural readers to understand and enjoy Bengali culture and society in Calcutta.

When I completed reading the story, I couldn’t help but wonder if Sudha was going to return to Calcutta from her sojourn to America. The novel stood well on its own as a complete story; but there are several strands that I couldn’t help but wonder about how they would progress. I wanted to know what would happen to Singhji and whether Sudha would see him again and how she would feel if she did. I wanted to know what would happen to the trinity of women in the family, Gouri Ma, Aunt Nalini and Pishi. And, of course, most of all, I wanted to know what would happen to Ashok, the man Sudha loved but sacrificed not once but twice—for Anju, the sister of her heart.

Before I close this review, I must say one thing. I have the bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously. When I started reading this book, I had already read about a hundred pages of “The Hungry Tide”, a novel by Amitav Ghosh. I found the story too enjoyable to put the book down and go back to Ghosh’s book. As much as I was enjoying Ghosh's book, too, it just had to wait.

After reading the novel, when I found out that Divakaruni wrote a sequel to the story later, “The Vine of Desire” in 2002, I couldn’t help but feel good. I immediately started looking forward to reading it. After one book, I have become a Divakaruni fan. She is a brilliant storyteller.


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