I nominated this for my f2f book group because I was curious. The author lives in Houston and is a friend of a friend. I was expecting a relatively simple, domestic novel, but was pleasantly surprised to find a dazzlingly original example of magical realism.
The main character doesn’t even have a stable name. It changes as her life changes: first she’s Nayan Tara, the disappointing girl child who’s ugly—the color of mud—but who has psychic gifts that make the family’s fortune in a small village on a river in India. She grows up impatient and sullen from all the attention and wills pirates to comes and take her away. That happens and she becomes the Queen of the pirates for a while until she travels to the island to meet the First Mother to whom she apprentices herself as a Mistress of Spices, taking the name Tila. As the novel ends she takes yet another name.
The novel opens with Tila, an old, dark-skinned and wrinkled woman, the mistress of spices, who runs a small Indian grocery in Oakland, CA. She listens to the stories of the Indian immigrants who are her customers and “prescribes” the appropriate spices to ameliorate their problems. But she's a rebel and impatient. She can’t be satisfied following the rules—staying inside the store always, listening and dispensing advice and spices but not interfering. There’s the taxi driver who gets involved with shady characters, the bride whose husband beats her, the young boy who finds gang members to protect him from bullies in school in exchange for keeping and delivering mysterious packages, there’s the grandfather whose family rejects the daughter who is in love with a Mexican fellow student. Tila disobeys the spices, exceeds her mission by going out and getting involved in people’s lives. About the same time a handsome American turns up in her shop, eventually tells his story and a strange love affair develops. Using the most powerful of the spices, Tila turns herself into a beauty for one day with the Raven, as the American calls himself.
Unbelievably the story is concluded satisfactorily on both the mythical and the realistic levels. The style is original and inviting—the first third of the novel so sucked me in that I literally couldn’t stop reading.