From the Publisher
Praise for Daphne Beal’s In the Land of No Right Angles
“Capturing a self-satisfied expat world of mantra-spouting Don Juans and ‘highbrow hippie girl[s] taking a year off from Brown,’ Beal, like a new-generation Paul Bowles, targets an essential American naivete: the tendency to romanticize–and fear–more traditional cultures. Gently satirizing the idea that any social ill can be remedied with a bit of capital and good intentions, Beal’s richly textured story conjures a friendship as intimate as it is impossible.” –Vogue
“An unpredictable journey of the spirit and the flesh. . . . [An] enchanting, at times perilous, tale of love, magic, and illusion.” –Elle
“Beal . . . won us over. When naïve Alex makes a ‘karmic connection’ with magnetic Maya, there’s nothing pseudo about it. . . . Would you drop everything–your job, apartment–for a friend? Mediate on that.” –Marie Claire
“Vivid. . . . Tantalizingly ambiguous. . . . Beal capably describes the outsider’s disorientation in a foreign land.” –Rebecca Donner, BookForum
“An exquisitely rendered tale set against a continent teeming with motion. . . . [Beal] manages to trace a story that perfectly links the changing face of contemporary Nepal and the lurid underworld of Bombay’s red-light district.” –Time Out New York
“Beal deftly portrays the beauty of the countryside, the monasteries and temples, the quaint villages, the welcoming hinterland families and the easygoing expat community. But she also explores the soft underbelly of this opening up of Nepal and the shattering changes in tradition and desires that modernity brings.” –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Equal parts coming-of-age quest and travelogue, this debut novel dazzles most with its deft descriptions, which transform an unimaginably foreign land into terra cognita.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A meditation on what it means to be a traveler not only of the world, but of one’s own ever-changing, inner topography. Beal artfully balances clarity and chaos, and explores how even the thinnest line of human connection . . . can alter a person for good. . . . A subtly resonant masterpiece.” –Heidi Julavits, author of The Uses of Enchantment
“Instantly suspenseful. . . . Beal’s intimate knowledge of Nepal . . . shines from these pages, making her a frank and humane tour guide into an underworld she makes fully her own.” –Jennifer Egan, author of The Keep
“Haunting, spare, fascinating. . . . A sharp, keenly observed meditation on friendship, on desire.” –Alison Smith, author of Name All the Animals
It starts with a standard conceit: "What I saw on my semester abroad." Alex Larson, a "wholesome-bordering-on-nerdy" Des Moines girl, interested in photography and what lies beyond her upstate New York college, spends a year in Nepal. While she's on a trekking trip, as a favor to Will, a charismatic American expat 13 years her senior, Alex contacts his friend Maya. The two young women meet, and under the cover of night Alex delivers Maya from traditional village life to the relative metropolis of Kathmandu, and Will's bachelor pad. The triumvirate bond over elaborate meals, pilgrimages and drugs; just before the house of postcards begins to topple, Alex reluctantly returns to college. She comes back four years later to find Nepal changed, and Maya has fallen in with a questionable crowd, disappearing for days at a time. On Falkland Road, Bombay's red-light district, Alex, armed with a camera and her wits, must confront the seedy underbelly of her fantasyland to find her friend. Equal parts coming-of-age quest and travelogue, this debut novel dazzles most with its deft descriptions, which transform an unimaginably foreign land into terra cognita. (Aug.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
School Library Journal
While spending a year in Nepal, Alex, an American college student, meets Maya, who is from the hill country. She helps Maya leave her home and begin a new life in Kathmandu, and both young women feel that there is something strong that binds them together. Alex makes two more trips to Nepal over the next eight years. She learns that Maya has gone to Bombay, where she has entered the sex trade, and Alex follows her there, hoping that their bond will allow her to find Maya and somehow help her. This is a story about a relationship that cuts across cultures, but also about a culture that severs relationships. With complex and intriguing characters and beautifully drawn settings, this compelling novel has much to offer American teen girls ready to look at the larger world.-Sarah Flowers, Santa Clara County Library, CA
Read an Excerpt
It started out as a little adventure, or an adventure tagged onto an adventure. I was twenty and about to go trekking in the central hill region of Nepal by myself after living in the country for almost eight months when I mentioned it to my friend Will. We were at a party on the rooftop of a small hotel high on a hill at the western edge of Kathmandu, and when I told him where I was going in a few days' time, he lit up and asked if I could do him a favor. “It'll take you an hour out of your way. Two, tops,” he said as we looked out at the lowslung, ancient city twinkling before us.
“Sure,” I said. Two hours was nothing when you were talking about a two-and-a-half-week trek. Besides, the errand sounded interesting. He wanted me to find a girl he 'd met the year before and give her a message. As it was, the purpose of my solo trek was not only to take pictures, but to say good-bye to the people in a remote, hardscrabble village called Jankat where I'd lived for a month in the winter, and it all seemed a little melancholy. I was pleased to add a more cheerful mission.
With a map to the girl's house and a photograph, I took a bus to Ghorka and asked around town if anyone was headed to Barpak, the first town on my route. A small group of men and women said they were leaving in the morning for their home, and when I mentioned I was friends with some other bideshis-foreigners-who stayed there a few months before, they happily added me to their gang. We headed northwest to the thriving village set in lush green fields where I spent a couple of nights and went to a village elder's funeral high on a hillside. The whole village paraded up a winding path to the burial site as women keened and lamas danced and chanted, spinning in their colorful robes and hats, a kind of Hindu-Buddhist-animist blend of rites. As I was taking pictures, I knew I'd made the right decision, even if it was unconventional, to go trekking on my own, to be only one outsider watching all this. From there, I went northeast with a few people to the northernmost point where I was allowed without a permit. We walked uphill all morning, and I spent the afternoon sliding and jumping down muddy terraces until my knees ached, and then walking along the rushing Buri Gandaki some distance behind everyone else until I arrived at a desolate, tight-lipped little town of stone houses in a craggy grayand-brown setting of boulders and cliffs, where strings of tattered prayer flags whipped in the wind. When I couldn't find anyone to walk with the next day, I started due south along the river toward Tatopani, the town where the girl lived, knowing from Will's description that I didn't have a long day ahead of me. It was an easy walk compared to the day before, and I met enough people along the way that I didn't mind being alone. I expected to be there by about three, but it was almost four when the rain began to fall, and I still hadn't passed any of the landmarks he 'd mentioned.
It was a gentle rain at first-sim-simi, like little beans, Nepalis say of this kind of soft, steady rain-and I wasn't fazed by it. It even felt good after the midday heat. But soon enough it was a full-on downpour, a kind of preview of the monsoon to come, and my skirt (an ankle-length, flowered lungi, same as all the village women wore), long underwear, double layers of socks, and boots were soaked through. Every step was audible now, not just the footfall, but the slurpsquish-squelch that followed. Only the small section of my torso that was squarely under my poncho qualified as damp,and I scanned the trail for signs that I was getting close: a water tap, a clearing of wild pot plants, a sharp bend in the path. But more than an hour after I should have seen them, with no letup in the rain, I came up with nothing. There was no one to ask and no porch overhang to stop under. Was Will messing with me? I wondered. Trying to give me some Buddhist lesson about seeking and not finding? It wouldn't be totally unlike him, even though I wasn't his student anymore. He seemed to delight in exposing the people around him to new and unsettling ideas. I felt exasperated at the thought, but also a little excited. Maybe there was a point even if there was no point. And then, wasn't this exactly the kind of thing I wanted, when I decided to come here, to see things from a completely different perspective, from outside the Western mind-set? What was that Whitman line that Ginsberg used and that I loved when I read it? “Unscrew the locks from the doors/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs.” Here I was, a million miles from where I'd started, the landscape intensely beautiful, a pixelated world of glittering greens, everything smelling lushly of it. My footsteps splashed along the muddy path and mingled with the sound of my breath, the rustle of wet leaves, and the incessant rushing of the river,invisible beyond the dense growth.
If only I wasn't drenched and hungry. I hadn't eaten anything but a single chapati with peanut butter that I packed that morning. But I knew that eventually, even if I had to walk in the dark with a flashlight, I would run into the ramshackle trekking lodge I had stayed at a few months before. I could always get a good night's sleep (or as much as a wooden cot allowed) and look for the girl in the morning. It wasn't my nature to come this far and give up, and, even for Will, it would be too bizarre to make up such an elaborate lie. I'd seen him orchestrate surprising excursions for his students in the course of the semester program he ran, but nothing like this. Some of the students loved it, gathering at his apartment every evening to meet whatever guru or charlatan appeared,but I kept my distance. I hadn't traveled around the world to be in the thrall of an American man twelve years older than me. At the same time, from that distance, I liked him. Having lived in Nepal for the past eight years, he was smart and unconventional. And while I sometimes thought he enjoyed his role as teacher a bit too much, I also saw that he listened to the students and engaged with them in a way that made us all feel lucky. For all his grandstanding, there was something kind about him. He also happened to be a very good photographer, and from the beginning he and I had things to say to each other about people like Diane Arbus and Raghubir Singh, and about things like the quality of light in Kathmandu in the early morning, or how the landscape affected our sense of scale.
Then in January, before the new batch of students arrived, we ate a few meals together. I was staying on for another semester, and I told him that after a kind of hiatus from photography, I was looking for a project to work on in the six months I had left, before my money and visa ran out. “I want to do something that's not just old-school anthropology or cool postcards,” I told him. “I feel like I'm finally just beginning to know something about this place so that I can actually take a real picture now.” I think he was surprised and maybe even a little impressed that I stayed and wanted something more than the gift-wrapped bauble of a semester of studyabroad, and he took me around town on the back of his motorcycle to meet people, expats and lamas among others,to help me figure out what I might be looking for: life at a monastery or convent, in a leper colony, at an untouchable 's home. When I had a stomach bug one day, he brought me ayurvedic medicine, and I got better right away.
I didn't sleep with him, if you're wondering. It didn't come up, or not explicitly. Friends had, including Maggie, my closest friend in Nepal, whom I'd introduced to Will. She was my age and taking a year off from Berkeley to immerse herself in the whole Tibetan Buddhist scene, and I thought they would have things to talk about. Then, while I was in India for six weeks, she tried opium with him, and they slept together, which she regretted afterward. “He just wasn't very nice about it,” she told me. “It was like he was so invested in not being 'attached,' in the Buddhist way, that he forgot I was a real person.” I was so glad it wasn't me. I wouldn't have known what to do. Right before I left for India in February, after a couple of weeks of spending time together, there was a little frisson between Will and me, but I knew I wasn't his type. I saw that when he dated American girls, he liked them hippie-ish and diminutive, and I was, especially at that time, what I would call wholesomebordering-on-nerdy, too tall by at least six inches, and defiantly redheaded compared to his petite brunettes. I knew I was just a curiosity.
After a party welcoming the spring semester's students, we danced a little. Will asked me to come to Ghorka to give a “lecture” about my experience in the area to the new students, and I told him I was thinking I should go to India if I wanted to get to Dharamsala in time for the Tibetan New Year. I knew he expected me to go home with him that night, but at the end of the party, I jumped on the back of a friend's scooter.
“What? Why are you going with her?” he asked.
“I'm exhausted,” I said, pretending not to hear the irritation in his voice. When I ran into him at school a couple days later, he was friendly enough, as if he'd forgotten all about it. All the same, I fled the country soon after. I was way too inexperienced to get involved with someone like him. He was the Casanova of Kathmandu, and I was just a girl from Des Moines who knew more about sex and romance in theory than in practice. When I got back from India, he had moved on. There was Maggie, and then his Nepali girlfriend. We were just pals now.
Still, as I slogged on, I wondered if this errand of his was a kind of test to see how I responded: impatient, irate, amused, defeated? How much had I let Nepal into my psyche? Not enough to want to be walking at night by myself. Just as I decided to speed up to make it to the lodge I knew about, I saw a little path to my left, looked around, and jogged a few steps through the dripping underbrush, my pack thumping against my back as I went. Then I saw the thatched roof, tall and pointy, thick with straw, and the solid gray stone walls beneath it. I felt like Gretel at the candy cottage. “A well-built house,” Will had said. This had to be it!
As I got closer, I saw a porch on the far side of the house and on it, under the eaves, a girl, maybe seventeen, leaning against a post holding a big tin water jug to her hip and watching the rain as if she were reading something in it. Her attitude, wistful and contemplative, was familiar in a way that few things were here. People, by and large, were so rooted in their lives, their minds never seemed to float too far away.
“Namaste, little sister!” I called, and she swung around and grinned.
“Namaste, big sister!” she shouted, as if she 'd been expecting me. “Come quickly!” She set down her jug and helped me off with my pack and onto the dry porch, whisking away my poncho to a covered line at the far end. The whole wall facing the river and porch was open, and Nepalis and Tibetans were gathered in the dim light of the late afternoon, drinking from tin cups. I propped my pack against a near wall, yanked off my boots and socks, and went to sit by the small cooking fire at the front of the room, tended to by a cheerful older woman who had to be the girl's mother.
“Raksi or tea?” she asked with a sly grin.
“Tea, please,” I said, practically sticking my long, bony, freckled feet in the fire. I wanted all my wits about me. The woman chortled. It was a little test on her part, because a woman, especially a young-read, sexually viable-woman really didn't drink. An older village woman had earned her right, and highcaste women just didn't drink at all. So, she was sussing out, was I in fact a foreigner who didn't know all the rules, or one who knew them and was willing to flout them? I was so cold and sodden I might have had raksi if I weren't there for such a specific reason. That, and if the drink hadn't tasted so much like lighter fluid the few times I'd tried it.
Holding the hot metal cup close to my face, trying to drive off the chill, I answered all the usual questions. What country was I from? Where did I come from that day? How long had it taken me? The woman was clearly pleased that I could speak Nepali. I shaved off more than an hour so that I didn't look too pathetic. Did I have a mother, father, sisters, brothers? Why was I traveling alone? Had I eaten? When I told her I hadn't, the woman offered me some cold boiled potatoes with salt, which I gobbled up. I knew it wasn't the best idea, eating food that had been sitting around, but my stomach needed something to chew on besides itself. Then I asked about their family, crops, chickens, the weather, and also, because I wanted to be sure, the name of the place.