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book review
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Menaka Raman-Wilms.Fred Lum/Handout

  • Title: The Rooftop Garden
  • Author: Menaka Raman-Wilms
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Nightwood Editions
  • Pages: 208

As children, Nabila and Matthew spent many afternoons together, playing what they called “the forest game.”

Or rather, that’s what Nabila called it, her fertile imagination transforming the rooftop garden at her family’s Toronto building into a post-apocalyptic landscape, the noise of taxis and streetcars below standing in for the lapping of climate-change-induced floodwaters, the plants in their concrete pots a sign of the earth reclaiming its territory.

Matthew follows along, passively letting Nabila – bright, confident, a real “pleasure to have in class” type – direct their play, meekly standing down the one or two times he suggests an idea Nabila thinks is silly. Even at that age, Nabila notices that there’s something about Matthew – suggestible, naive for his age, always the butt of a joke he never quite grasps – that makes her feel protective about him. His mother is always working, his father is absent and his main caretakers seem to be his teenage sisters.

It’s one of those strange childhood friendships you might recognize: The kid you play with all the time outside of school, but who you barely acknowledge when you’re surrounded by your peers in class. In high school, they drift apart, and save for an incident where Nabila rescues him from a group of boys who get him drunk and make fun of him, they don’t speak for years. Their lives fall into predictable patterns – Nabila turning her fascination with climate change into a career studying how sea kelp adapts to warming water; Matthew riding the bus every day to a job in food service – until a chance encounter sets off a chain of events that ends in a way they could never have anticipated.

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The Rooftop Garden by Menaka Raman-Wilms.Handout

And this is where Menaka Raman-Wilms’s debut novel, The Rooftop Garden, finally gets going. I say “finally” because this one’s a real slow burn, almost to its detriment. It has one of those vague beginnings that feels like you’re gathering the pieces of something, but you’re not always entirely sure whether the puzzle you might be assembling is intriguing enough to persevere with.

Don’t give up! As the pieces come together – the reason Nabila is hanging around in Berlin waiting for Matthew; the sinister motives of a group he’s left his home in Toronto to join, preyed on by dangerously hateful men who take advantage of his gullibility and need to belong; the mounting sense of dread as it all lurches toward a horrifying conclusion – this novel becomes genuinely gripping, in a sick-to-your-stomach sort of way. The last few chapters feel a bit like that sequence in a horror film when you know the killer is waiting behind the door, and you have to watch powerlessly as their victim walks toward certain disaster.

Powerlessness, in fact, is a bit of a theme in this novel, as are our reactions to forces that can feel greater than our puny human capabilities. Some – like Nabila with her saviour complex, which extends from the environment to Matthew – try to find power in attempting to control a situation by finding solutions and making plans to fix things. Others – like Matthew, swept up into an incel-like group of men determined to show all the women who’ve “humiliated” them who’s really in charge – are easily swayed, succumbing to the currents of something so dark (and so old, a pattern repeated through history) that they’re unable to fight it, like a lamb to the slaughter.

Raman-Wilms is a journalist (you might recognize her as the host of The Decibel, The Globe and Mail’s daily news podcast) and her trade is evident in this novel. Her prose, for one thing, is pleasingly fluent and clear, and her deep knowledge of what’s going on in the world – the looming threat of climate change, the rise of extremist misogynist groups, the pervading sense of hopelessness that can drive us in all sorts of directions – makes this novel feel like a timely one. It’s a beautifully painted portrait of a single relationship, yes, but it also feels like a wake up call, a reminder of how easily and insidiously evil can grow and take root.

And it’s far more terrifying than anything Nabila and Matthew dreamt up playing in the rooftop garden.

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