Early in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's new novel, Oleander Girl, the dead mother of Korobi Roy appears to the young woman in a dream, beckoning to her from a bedroom window. Reading the novel, I felt as if I were that mother, an omniscient presence able to read my child's mind and also observe the machinations of all the other people in her life: her grandfather Bimal, proud and unyielding; her grandmother Sarojini, kind and patient; her fiancée Rajat, earnest yet conflicted; Rajat's mother, scrapping and fearful. Even the minor characters, which still play major roles in moving the narrative along, are open to me, and to me alone. What a frustrated mother I am reading the book, knowing what I know and yet forced to watch my well-meaning but still naïve daughter muddle -- and at times charge head on -- through the often painful twists and turns that will lead her not only to the truth about her own father but also to the heart of who she is. Or rather, who she has become: a woman I am proud of.
Korobi starts out young and sure of herself, but it is the confidence of youth and not of experience. Once she commits herself to finding out who her father was, experiences come fast and furious and Korobi is forced to grow up. Both at home in Kolkata, where barriers between castes and races are slowly crumbling, and in the United States, where the terrible events of 9/11 have erected new barriers of prejudice against dark-skinned foreigners, Korobi discovers the penalties exacted when barriers are breached, and the rewards.
Oleander Girl is a coming of age novel in the best tradition, with a heroine who is both infuriating and endearing, and most importantly, brave. Having discovered a letter from her mother to her father, full of love but never sent, Korobi sets out on a quest to find her father. Along the way, she confronts enemies and finds helpers, faces temptation and despair, but in the end, overcomes all to discover what matters most. What is coming of age? Coming of age is understanding that the world does not revolve around you; that the world cannot be forced to conform to your version of it; that the adults you revered make mistakes; and that what endures is what you have given of yourself to others.
Korobi's gift is the effort she makes to resolve her past with her present, and to overcome barriers erected both now and then. Divakaruni's gift is story telling, and she is generous with her gift. Through her wonderful novel Oleander Girl, we become active participants in the unfolding of a young woman, and grateful witnesses to the maturing of a child into a woman.