The following review was contributed by: Lily Azerad-Goldman artist and author.
With her latest novel, critically acclaimed author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni chronicles the lives of a Bengali immigrant family living in California at the beginning of the new millennium.
Using powerful, lush and rich language that is particular to Indo-English authors, DIVAKARUNI immerses her readers into the minds of the characters who play various roles in the novel. In the first chapter, she describes a dream that sets the pace for the rest of the novel. Unfortunately, however, from time to time the initial fast paced momentum seems to peters out but picks up again at the end of the novel.
After her death, Queen of Dreams (as her husband used to call her), who had played a pivotal role in the life of her daughter, leaves behind a journal of dreams for her daughter to read.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is impressive in simultaneously and convincingly understanding the feelings of both mother and daughter. She achieves this juggling act with little apparent effort by writing in the first person narrative and switching to third person, when it is her daughter’s Rakhi’s “whisper” voice or consciousness that prods her.
Queen of Dreams brings to mind the surrealist paintings of Dali, as she not only interprets her own dreams but also enters into the dreams of others and communicates with them in order to warn them of impending doom. One could also term it “Magic Realism,” as reality intermingles with the magic of her dreaming.
A native of the slums of India, the Queen of Dreams wants to spare her daughter the tale of her strange and painful past. Rakhi was born in the United States and grows up with a feeling of belonging to her birth land. She married and separated from Sonny, another immigrant, and their six-year old daughter, Jona, tries to reunite them. Much of the book’s activities transpire in a small café, “The Chai House,” owned by Rakhi and her “liberated” Sikh friend and partner Belle. After her mother dies in a fatal crash, her father, who was a drunk, becomes her unlikely ally in saving her flailing business. He also aids her in translating her mother’s journal from Bengali to English.
The events of 9/11 bring the family in contact with a bunch of “goons” who attack them and accuse them of being terrorists due to the color of their skin. Out of the ashes, Rakhi, like a Phoenix, rekindles her love for her husband and her family.
The characters are extremely well developed. You feel Rahki’s frustrated quest for her roots, the anguish of the mother, who is condemned by her “ vivid imagination”, the kindness of her father, the love of Sonny and Jona, and the hatred of racists and bigots. Another character, Marco, who is a homeless person relying on leftover muffins from the café is also a likeable character.
The entire novel is peppered with gloriously memorable prose poetry. I particularly liked these sentences in her first chapter for example when Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni describes the Snake who appears to her as a foreboding: “… He was more beautiful then I remembered. His plated green skin shone like rainwater on banana plants in the garden plot…. His body glowed with light. A clear, full light tinged with coastal purples, late afternoon in the cypresses along the Pacific.” Or when Rakhi speaks of her mother: “She moved quietly and with confidence, the way deer might step deep inside a forest, the rustle of her clothes a leafy breeze…..” Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is particularly gracious when describing the ageing cafe customers: “…lined, unabashedly showing their age, they hint at eventful pasts lived in different difficulties and triumphs I can’t quite imagine…”
Until the very end we are enthralled with the mystery of the snake and the mysterious man in white, invoking queries as to relationships, racism, terrorism, painting, dreams, premonitions and much more. QUEEN OF DREAMS is a novel that will find a home in many book clubs, where it will be receive a sympathetic reception, and probably widely discussed! A must read!