Set outside the fictitious town of Merrit’s Point in northern British Columbia during the 1970s, the story begins with the discovery of a tenant’s frozen body in the backyard of the Dharma family’s isolated home. Montreal-based writer Anita Rau Badami uses four shifting narrators to slowly unveil the sequence of events that led to this tragic death.
We hear from Varsha, the troubled teenage daughter, who was abandoned by her birth mother. Her stepmother, the sweet and gentle Suman, dreams of escaping from Vikram, her abusive husband, while managing the bleak reality of her life with excessive cooking and cleaning. Hemant, the sensitive seven-year old son, is haunted by ghosts and feels burdened by the many secrets floating in the multi-generational Indian home. We also hear from the dead tenant, Anu Krishnan, through her journals.
When Anu Krishnan first arrived at the Dharam home, she enjoyed Suman’s delicious Indian cooking and sat for hours listening to the tales told by Akka, the family matriarch. She welcomed the isolation and felt inspired to write short stories. Soon, however, the perfect facade of the Dharma family unravels and Anu becomes wrapped up in the drama.
The family’s chilling secrets start to come out, despite everyone’s efforts to maintain appearances. While Akka complains about their life in Jehannum (hell), she is fiercely protective of the family and urges the children to hold it in. If the secrets threaten to come out, Varsha and Hemant must tell only the trees.
Another character occupies center stage in this novel: Winter. In a recent interview, Badami admitted to this guilty little secret, “I dread the white nothingness that creeps into my soul and stays there for six long months…It’s not the cold that gets to me as much as the lack of colour. Having grown up in India where colour is overwhelmingly present, my longing of it reaches its zenith during our winters.”
Her dislike of the Canadian winters is apparent in the vivid descriptions throughout the novel. When Suman arrives in Canada, it is late March, “a time when the ground is knee-deep in snow, and your breath hangs like a ghost before your face.” Later, Suman names her son Hemant for winter, the season in which he was born.
Anita Rau Badami skilfully describes the cycle of abuse and how it is passed down through the generations. Many of us have asked the questions: Why doesn’t the woman just leave? Why does she continue to make excuses for the man’s behaviour?
This book provides the answers.