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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The epigram to Sister of my Heart, the entertaining new novel from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, invokes African author Chinua Achebe, writing in Anthills of the Savannah: "It is only the story...that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence." The anchor to Sister of my Heart is the belief that storytelling not only lights the path for succeeding generations, but also possesses shamanistic powers. Both teller and listener may be healed or transformed, cursed or freed. For the Chatterjees, an upper-caste Calcutta family fallen on hard times but tenaciously remaining in their decaying mansion of mystery and faded glory, storytelling is a lifeline cast from aunt to niece, mother to daughter, cousin to cousin, past to present, and, in the book's climax, continent to continent. Stories are not merely a way to pass the time or to put dreams into words. In Divakaruni's magician's hands these stories-within-stories, with their sights and smells and enchanted imagery, transport the reader to an India that is at once timeless and evocative of the present day. For her passionate characters, they shape lives for good or for sorrow with the razor edge of experience. Perhaps no character is as susceptible to a story's spell as Sudha Chatterjee, an uncommonly beautiful girl with a dreaming, ancient-seeming soul. At Sister of my Heart's opening she begs a story from Pishi, the widowed aunt who helps to raise Sudha like the daughter she never had. The story Sudha never tires of hearing is the tale of her birth, and thougheachtime she knows the answer, what Sudha desperately wants to change is the fate spelled out for her that night. "They say in the old tales that the first night after a child is born, the Bidhata Purush comes down to earth himself to decide what its fortune is to be. That is why they bathe babies in sandalwood water and wrap them in soft red malmal, color of luck. That is why they leave sweetmeats by the cradle. Silver-leafed sandesh, dark pantuas floating in golden syrup, jilipis orange as the heart of a fire, glazed with honeysugar. If the child is especially lucky, in the morning it will all be gone." For Sudha, however, no god spirited away the sweets. For Sudha, all omens that night augered ill. Only one facet to Sudha's birth pleases her: That evening Anju Chatterjee was also born. Better than the blessing of some abstract heavenly force, the practical-minded and plain-faced Anju is Sudha's cousin. Their fathers were brothers, and together they set out to find their fortune in a ruby mine. Neither lived to see his daughter born. Both girls grow tentatively beneath this unlucky star and under the nurturing wings of their mothers and aunt. In their devotion to each other and their unspoken vow to remain sisters of the heart if not of the blood, each finds her solace and better half. As children, Anju and Sudha are inseparable, and Anju realizes that their bond is the envy of their many aunts and cousins and nosy neighboring women. As an adult and new wife, Anju will still be able to declare, "In spite of all my insecurities, in spite of the oceans that'll be between us soon and the men that are between us already, I can never stop loving Sudha. It's my habit, and it's my fate." In echo of Divakaruni's prize-winning short story collection, Arranged Marriage, however, traditional Indian women must struggle to author their own stories. Devoted to one another as Sudha and Anju are, adult life demands choices and planning that rarely favor sisterly bonds. For Indian women of noble lineage, marriage is key — even for those who aspire to attend college, as Anju does, or for those who fall in love at first sight, as Sudha does. Each agrees to an arranged marriage, not out of desire but out of a sense of familial obligation. Giving up their dreams to curry the favor of the gods of fortune, who have never yet smiled on the abandoned Chatterjee women, plunges Sudha and Anju into dark and entangling circumstances neither ever envisioned for herself or for the other. Domestic secrets open like infected wounds, and for the first time what a sister of the heart refuses to tell is as momentous as what she reveals. Distance comes first in the form of forbidden knowledge, then, more tangibly, in Anju's move with her husband, Sunil, to the United States. The rich narrative tapestry that Divakaruni weaves across continents and decades includes the retelling of the myths of ancient Indian culture. In the novel's most enchanting moments and with Divakaruni in full command of her poetic style, Sudha and Anju invent roles for themselves in the old tales. Threading into history their intimate knowledge of each other's most glimmering wishes, they spin the tales they need to survive. To convince the skeptical Anju she really has fallen in love with a boy she's barely met, Sudha, ever the misty-eyed believer in fairy tales, whispers, "He was the one to wake her and tell her about the magical universe of men — diamond light on sleek mango leaves, the kokils crying to their mates from the coconut trees. He rescued her from sameness, from too much safety. There had been no mirrors in the palace. When she looked into his eyes, their dark center, she saw herself for the first time, tiny, and doubled, and beautiful. I think that's why she loved him most. Without him she'd never have known who she was."Of course Sister of my Heart is no fairy tale, and the men here, while dashing and handsome enough, fail their women more often than they rescue them. The mirror to Sudha's most necessary self is not framed by any man's face but reflected back to her by the light of her sister's knowing glance.