The Folded Earth, by Anurahda Roy

With
The Folded Earth, Roy has written a
meditation on the good life, what it is, and how one knows it has been
achieved.  The novel tells the
story of Maya, in her own words, but begins with the tale of Charu, a young
woman just beginning her own life and burgeoning love story.  Roy writes with depth and patience,
slowly unveiling narrative after narrative to create the complete picture.  We are walked through Maya’s life, the
way one would walk the woods and wilderness of her beloved home at the foot of
the Himalayas—carefully, savoring every new perspective and line of detail.

On
the surface The Folded Earth is a
rather typical story of loss and renewal, however it is Roy’s light touch and
deftness in her craft that make this novel remarkable.  Maya begins her story in the middle,
alternating between recounting the events that brought her to Ranikhet and
telling the stories of her neighbors and friends there, in the present.  The
Folded Earth
is a subtle homage to the nation of India, its lands, and the
endurance of its people both before and after British colonial rule.  Roy gives the reader small snippets of
lives, the hopes and dreams and foibles of varied individuals, which together
create a Van Gogh canvas of light and life, while also subtly telling the story
of small town politics against the backdrop of a vast nation.           

Roy’s
prose is at once sensitive and unsentimental.  Clarity of narrative evokes an intellectual and emotional
response, without manipulating the reader’s interpretation of the story.  Placing Maya as the outsider looking in
on a world previously unfamiliar to her, Roy has created a narrator that can
get to the heart of the stories around her, and even recount her own story
dispassionately, while still allowing her to admit uncertainty and doubt about
her experiences.  If Roy’s canvas
of characters weren’t enough to keep the reader engaged, then Maya’s development
as a person and as a narrator certainly will be.

Readers
interested in reading stories set in contemporary India need look no further
than The Folded Earth.  This is a novel that will appeal to any
reader interested in thoughtful storytelling and polished
characterization.  It’s slower pace
allows readers to savor the story and fall into the rhythms of life at the foot
of the Himalayas.   

Rebel Queen, by Michelle Moran

Beach readers, look no further.  Moran has written a fictionalized tale
of the Queen Lakshmi of the Kingdom of Jhansi in northern India during the
English conquest.  She tells her
story through Sita, who has a tale of her own to tell, and relates to the
reader the last days of Queen Lakshmi’s rule and the brutal wars that
accompanied England’s annexing India to their empire.  Sita tells how she has become one of the Durgavasi, the
Queen’s ten female guards skilled in both weapons and their ability to
entertain the queen.  It’s a
fascinating history and there are plenty of ups and downs to keep the story
moving.

Rebel Queen follows in Moran’s practice
of taking historical women and spinning a story around them.  She includes a note at the end of the
novel of which historical aspects she used, what was unclear, and what she
changed for the story.  Readers
interested in this period of history will appreciate the research that went
into the novel.  Sita’s is also a
moving story because she provides a connection to what is happening to the
people of India during this period through the family she has left behind in
her village.  She begins the novel
by telling how she got to the Durgavasi, revealing many further aspects of
India culture, especially concerning women’s roles.

 Moran
provides beautiful descriptions of clothing, architecture, and food.  Sita, who is telling the story through
memoirs, often interrupts the narrative to address the reader directly about
some aspect of Indian custom or culture, which may be welcome to some readers
not familiar with culture or terminology. 
Moran’s narrative voice displays a practiced comfort with storytelling,
though some readers may find her habit of explaining everything, rather than
letting the reader experience and infer from the point of view of the
characters, a bit trying at times. 
Sita’s manner of engaging with and talking about other characters, even
the Rani Lakshmi, can be somewhat superficial and uneven, making Rebel Queen feel more like an outline
from a history lesson than a novel.

Nevertheless
it is a fascinating slice-of-life story of an oft-overlooked period of India’s
history, and many readers will appreciate the focus on women in this
period.  Readers looking for a
fast-paced read set in an interesting place will enjoy Rebel Queen.  Those who
enjoy novels set as memoires or diaries will enjoy the narrative focus of the
story and the ways that Sita has of looking at and experiencing the world
around her.  Grab Rebel Queen and head to the beach.

The Conch Bearer, byChitra Banerjee Divakaruni

            The
Conch Bearer
is the story of a young boy from
Calcutta, India, who finds himself on a quest out of legend.  His father has gone far away in search
of work, leaving Anand, his mother, and his sister Mira at home.  When his father inexplicably stops
sending money home, the family find themselves able only to afford a dingy
shack, his mother has to take work as a cook for a rich family, and Anand has
to quit school and go to work at a tea stall.  Despite these hardships, Anand never loses his compassion
for other unfortunates, and it is his charity towards an old man that leads to
him being chosen for an important mission.  A conch shell with magical healing powers has been stolen
from the Brotherhood of healers in the Silver Valley and Anand must help them
get it back.

            Anand
is forced to make many difficult decisions during his quest, to solve problems
and figure out a way forward, even with no one to help him.  It is an empowering story full of
suspense, danger, and small happy moments for the Anand and his company.  Though the Brotherhood—and thence
access to magic—is presented as a male, Divakaruni subverts that paradigm in
order to create a satisfying ending for all characters and readers. 

Divakaruni’s
characters, though they fall into some well-known types—the nurturing mother,
the mysterious but benevolent old man, the street-wise urchin—are allowed their
own personalities and are not bound by their identifiable characteristics.  Nissa, the orphan girl who accompanies
Anand, is more mercenary than he is, but is still allowed to make choices based
upon her experiences and observances and grows a great deal throughout the
story.  Anand himself makes some
important realizations about the nature of stories, fantasy, and what it means
to really achieve your dreams. 

The Conch Bearer is a
charming coming-of-age story that will delight young readers with its whimsical
invocation of classical stories and legends.  Children interested in magic or quest stories will be caught
up by Divakaruni’s obvious delight in her own tale and the characters she has
created, without feeling patronized by the lessons the story teaches.  Young readers interested in travel, or
stories about children who become heroes, will also find much to enjoy in this
novel.