Winter is in our soul here in the North. Readers who cannot wait for the bracing beauty of a white world, the icy sting of a knife-like wind and the drawing in of early darkness need only schuss into the opening pages of Tell It To the Trees. As snow "floats down like glitter dust from a flat winter sky," a white-shrouded mound that might have softened into earth by spring is identified as a dead body, thanks to a pair of pecking ravens. The frozen corpse is Anu Krishnan, the Dharma family's tenant.
Who was Anu Krishnan? Why did she end up dead? What truly goes on inside the Dharma house in Merrit's Point, B.C., nestled cozily in the pines with soaring mountains in the distance, where three generations are "crammed together, typical Indian style," in the middle of nowhere?
Anita Rau Badami's fourth novel is a tightly focused domestic drama about the impact of family secrets and the cost of preserving and protecting the family name. A literary and psychological mystery, it contrasts with her sweeping epic, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, which spanned more than half a century and humanized history by dramatizing it through the interlocking lives of three women. Female voices are also front and centre in Tell It To the Trees, as the suspenseful story unfolds from the multiple perspectives of 13-year-old Varsha, her stepmother Suman and Anu, who kept a notebook during her time living with the Dharmas. (Anu hoped to write stories and retreated to the Dharma's back cottage for isolation and inspiration in the summer of 1980.)
Badami is deft at building and particularizing those characters fortunate enough to have a voice in her tale. Varsha is feisty but fragile, wounded by the loss of her mother, Harini, and fearful that her stepmother will also abandon her, while she lives in fear of her volatile father. Longing for maternal protection, Varsha dotes on her little brother Hemant. In a paradoxical, poignant safeguard against becoming motherless, Varsha becomes a miniature mother, loving Hem more than "air and water and food."
Suman, who journeyed from Madras, India, in a hastily arranged marriage, straddles two far-flung worlds. Though she dreams of running away from bleak and isolated Merrit's Point, she has nowhere to go. Gazing into the mirror she muses, "I. Such a sliver of a word to hold the meaning and the matter of all that I was and would be." She longs for her new husband to "love me into being."
Anu embodies in-betweenness, a theme close to Badami's heart. She rents a cottage on the Dharmas' land, but is not a part of their family. Of Indian ancestry, she has been raised in the West and embraces contemporary values. Writers are notoriously nosy and ruthless, game for using anything for material, and Anu is no different. An outsider, she breaks through the Dharma family's boundaries, upsetting the precarious balance of their household, with tragic consequences.
Though Varsha's younger brother, Hem, tells his own story in a number of passages, the patriarch, Vikram, the vortex around which much of the drama swirls, is only seen and heard through the eyes and ears of others.
Varsha describes her father's belt as it "whistles through the air to scorch my back or legs, hidden places nobody can see." Suman stoically tolerates his "sudden rages which tear across our lives … as viciously as winter storms." In typical fashion, Vikram later blames his victims for "making him" do these terrible things.
Unfortunately, Vikram never rises above the controlling-paranoid-possessive-abusive husband archetype overexposed in television police dramas and movie thrillers. Badami unmans him by failing to give him his own voice. Hearing Vikram's thoughts, dreams and fears, getting inside his head, would have considerably strengthened this novel. Some of the greatest characters in literature are deeply disturbed, even evil. Think of Iago. A character need not be nice, just interesting.
Ultimately, this is a story about the lies, secrets and shame embedded within a family and the lengths members will go to protect their privacy. Some may read it as a fable where outsiders seek truth at their peril. As Suman prophetically puts it, "Truth was a shifting, shy thing, like sunlight changing from moment to moment, unknowable even if you spent your life in the heart of it."
Ami Sands Brodoff is at work on a new novel, Faraway Nearby, about three orphans, one of whom is a Libyan migrant, whose lives converge on the island of Malta. Her latest book is The White Space Between, winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Fiction.