Family Tree

John Freeman
3 min read
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“When Victorians dreamed, they dreamed of the future,” says the heroine of Bharati Mukherjee's new novel. “I dreamed of the past.” This potent contrast forms the heart of Calcutta-born Mukherjee's dazzling new novel, The Tree Bride. It is the second in an ongoing trilogy of novels by the Calcutta born novelist, which when finished, just might be the Indian-American version of Roots.

Picking up where she left off in her 2002 effort, Desirable Daughters, Mukherjee brings back Tara Chatterjee, a 36-year-old San Francisco woman still reeling from a bombing at her home, which nearly claimed the life of her inventor husband. Another blast from the past comes a week later when Tara's OB-GYN tells her a story which reveals their long-ago family pasts have overlapped. Key to the story is Tara's namesake, Tara Lata Gangooly, who was literally married to a tree when her fiancé was killed on the way to her wedding. The tree bride spent the rest of her life—and her dowry—supporting Indian resistance to the British colonialists.

Tara wants to plunge headfirst into the tree bride's story. As it turns out, she must do it sideways—through two seemingly unrelated narratives. The first tells of a 19th century orphan named Jack Snow, whose experience on a ship taken over by Danish pirates on the way to Calcutta leads to a life of violence and greed under the moniker John Mist.

The second thread traces the life of John Treadwill, grandfather to Tara's OB-GYN, who has a much more ambiguous relationship to the Indian subcontinent. Born and raised a colonialist, he is at once repelled and enticed by life there, its adventure and sensuality. Somehow his story connects back to the bombing that Tara escaped in San Francisco. The trick of this book—and one of the reasons to keep reading—is to figure out how Mukherjee plans to connect the two.

Mukherjee's prize winning 1988 collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, charted the inner lives of characters with precision and depth. Then again, that was a book about immigration. Mukherjee's heroes and heroines had shipped into the United States from Calcutta via North Carolina, New Jersey and then Iowa. They were lost in the great muchness of the United States.

The reverse is true for Tara. The Tree Bride is a book about going back to the past, to India, and coloring it in before the outlines fade entirely. As a result, Mukherjee bombards her reader with places and names and shards of history that won't mean much to the average reader. Rather bravely, she puts us in a position to empathize with Tara. Like her, we are drowning in information, searching for a line to the truth. It is a bold move but it pays off. For when we arrive at the tree bride's life and story, we drink it down with all the pride and curiosity of this book's lost but found heroine.

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