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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #17 (April 26, 2005), page 12.
Less than the sum of its parts
The Tree Bride
By Bharati Mukherjee
Hardcover, 293 pages, $23.95
By Josephine Bridges
If Bharati Mukherjee weren’t such a staggeringly brilliant writer, maybe The Tree Bride wouldn’t be such a disappointing book. Unfortunately, the author’s eighth novel sprawls so untidily across time, space, and even point of view that I was one confused and crabby reader despite my admiration and gratitude for Mukherjee’s way with words.
Thank goodness for comic relief. After a surreal two-page prologue, Calcutta-born Tara Chatterjee confides at the beginning of the first chapter, "I had only one requirement for any doctor who would be poking around down there (well, two): that she be Indian." So begins the narrator’s friendship with the Anglo-Canadian Dr. Victoria Treadwell Khanna, which would be fine except that Tara also says, "There are no coincidences, only convergences," and the rest of the novel reads like an infomercial for unlikely convergences.
Turns out that not only is her new friend married to Tara’s former husband’s former professor, a native of India, but Victoria’s grandfather was in the Indian Civil Service. Vowing that she’ll burn them if Tara doesn’t take them away, Victoria gives Tara a box of her grandfather’s ledgers, letters, and papers, from which Tara deduces that Victoria’s grandfather must have known Tara’s great-great-aunt, who, when her betrothed was fatally bitten by a cobra on his way to the wedding ceremony, was married, at the age of five, to a tree.
Then there’s the London orphan Jack Snow, later John Mist, who built the house where the Tree Bride "would spend her entire sixty-five years." His adventures at sea and in nineteenth-century India could have given shape to at least one fine novel with tantalizing lines such as these: "Mist found himself a clearer thinker and better negotiator in his adopted language. He would forever think of Bengali and Persian as ladders to safety, shaded from the scrutiny of God."
There’s Victoria’s grandfather, as Tara imagines him — "The violence of Vertie Treadwell is cold and calculating, something very modern, a menacing, bureaucratic rage" — as he wrote of himself in an autobiographical fragment — "I was denied nothing I absolutely required. Those who complain of their cruel and impoverished childhood might as well complain of unjust weather or brutal water" — and as he was described by a contemporary following his death — "Historians will be writing of Vertie Treadwell, of his generation and men like him, fifty years from now when the names of Gandhi and Nehru are consigned to dusty dossiers." Multiple perspectives like these could have provided the framework for yet another respectable novel.
There’s also a shadowy figure named Abbas Sattar Hai, responsible for the firebombing of Tara’s house, her husband’s subsequent disability, her nephew’s murder, and more. And of course there’s the title character, Tara Lata Gangooly, who feared that "Indians might get the India they dreamed about, only to find its various parts indigestible," and who appears to her namesake as the novel draws to a close and whispers, "I have waited half a century to be liberated."
In other words, The Tree Bride consists of three or four potentially intriguing novels awkwardly crammed together in 293 pages. And while its parts might inspire a dizzying series of rave reviews, the whole of The Tree Bride was a confounding, tedious read.
Better luck next time.