by Kiran Desai ‧ RELEASE DATE: May 1, 1998
This enchanting first novel, set in the Indian village of Shakhot, details the agreeable chaos that ensues from its underachieving protagonist's decision to abandon the workaday world and live in a tree. That protagonist is Sampath Chawla, a child born during an insufferably hot summer (when ""The bees flew drunk on nectar that had turned alcoholic"") at the precise moment that a Red Cross plane delivering supplies to ""famine camps"" inadvertently showered its bounty on grateful Shakhot. This wry allusion to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children is only one of numerous grace notes in a beguiling narrative that displays its character's eccentricities abundantly while never reducing them to caricatures. Sampath, at 20 having become a morose failure as a postal employee, attains widespread celebrity when his matter-of-fact revelations, delivered from the guava tree where he's taken residence, show a deep knowledge of his neighbors' secrets (he's gained it from secretly reading their mail), convincing all and sundry that ""the Hermit of Shakhot"" is ""one of an unusual spiritual nature, his childlike ways being coupled with unfathomable wisdom."" Things grow more complicated when a passel of ""cinema monkeys"" (so named for their harassment of female moviegoers) join Sampath in his tree, the Atheist Society arranges surveillance of his ""activity,"" and a research scientist, a retired Brigadier, a police superintendent, and other suspicious citizens lock horns with a hastily assembled Monkey Protection Society. Desai's affectionate scrutiny of her maladroit protagonist is further sweetened, as it were, by deft comic portraits of Sampath's family, including most memorably his food-fixated mother Kulfi and his desperate father, a ""practical"" martinet who laments: ""What good is it to be the head of a family when you had a son who ran and sat in a tree?"" Kiran Desai is the daughter of highly praised novelist Anita Desai. It's a pleasure to report that this particular fruit of a distinguished literary lineage, having fallen rather far from the tree, is producing bountiful and delicious results.
Pub Date: May 1, 1998
Page Count: 208
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1998
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