An orphaned girl lives an eventful life in rural Punjab in Rana’s debut novel.
Tara lives in a Punjabi village with Bibi Saffiya and Saffiya’s servant Amman Bhaggan, who found the infant Tara abandoned on a train. The girl grows up in a position that’s part daughter and part servant, raised alongside Bhaggan’s three sons and Maria, the daughter of laborers who work for Saffiya. Tara is convinced that she deserves the best in life, like the attention of Sultan, Bhaggan’s eldest son, even though he has no interest in her. Her pursuit of him ends in tragedy—one of many in the book. In an effort to avoid becoming the second wife of an abusive man, Tara sleeps with Bhaggan’s second son, Taaj, and ends up marrying the third, Malik, but further losses await the characters, and the book’s final section is narrated by the swarms of flies that have been observing Tara and the other characters throughout their lives: “We, the flies, disentangled ourselves from the bodies and disappeared behind the bushes.” Rana is a vivid writer with a talent for evocative metaphors (“Tea stains are nothing compared with how my life has been marked”), and her prose is full of intimate, detailed descriptions that make the book’s rural setting come to life. The story isn’t a happy one, so readers should expect to encounter a constant stream of malaise throughout the book, which takes place in the somewhat recent past; there are televisions but no computers. Tara’s arrogance (“She looked old, and I felt even more beautiful. But I didn't have enough feelings to feel sorry for her”) makes her both compelling and unsympathetic as a protagonist, and her frequent complaints may wear on the reader. Still, Rana does a fine job of capturing the emotions of the characters, making it a satisfying, if bleak, read.
A coming-of-age story that blends excellent prose with a downbeat plot.