Mandanna has created an entire world within its 460 pages, one full of complex social dramas, rich cultural traditions, and deep emotions. The breathtaking landscape casts a magical light on its inhabitants and their interactions with one another. Perhaps the tone is a little nostalgic, as the author's describing a region and people she knows well — though she currently resides in Canada, south India is her home — but such is the spell she casts with her writing that it didn't lift until long after I'd closed the book. I wasn't sure I was going to write about it here (this wasn't a review copy, and sometimes it's refreshing to read a book you don't have to review) but the nagging sense that I really ought to spread the word about it made me give in. I knew I wouldn't be able to concentrate on my current read unless I did.
The story plays out amidst the undulating hills, coffee plantations, and picturesque local villages of Coorg, a small principality nestled within the Sahaydri mountains of southern India. It spans over fifty years, from 1878 through the coming of World War II. The opening scene seemed a bit over the top at first, given that it describes how the birth of the heroine, Devi, was heralded by the arrival of over a hundred herons. Perhaps she would turn out to be too perfect for words. This turns out not to be the case at all. Devi does grow to be exquisitely beautiful, but what this dramatic passage shows best is the mystical relationship between the land, animals, and the people of Coorg — an emphasis carried through most of the book.
The only girl born to her family for over sixty years, Devi grows up restless and spoiled, her whims indulged by her loving parents and grandmother. She and Devanna, a serious-minded boy whose mother died in tragic circumstances, become as close as "two seeds in a cardamom pod," playing together in the crab streams and jungles adjacent to their village. But from the moment young Devi meets Machu at the "tiger wedding" held in his honor — a grand celebration meant to glorify the hunter who kills a tiger — she determines that she'll marry no one but him. Devanna, however, knows the only woman he'll ever love is Devi.
Devanna shows an aptitude for math and botanical study, and his abilities are noted by the head of the local mission school, a German transplant to Coorg who treats Devanna like a son and prepares him for a brilliant scientific career. But when one well-meaning but selfish action results in terrible, unforeseen consequences, it warps the future of everyone concerned, so much so that the pain extends through later generations. I honestly didn't know if I'd make it through these gut-wrenching scenes, they were so difficult to read. Fortunately, both the book and I survived, though I wouldn't say I emerged unscathed. Neither does anyone else.
In a way I felt I arrived in Mandanna's Coorg as a tourist who decided to stay. I was caught first by the magnificence of the landscape, flora, and fauna, then slowly introduced to its people's customs, ceremonies, and traditions. Only later did I get to know the characters. They don't reveal their inner selves to strangers easily, though after a while I didn't feel like a stranger any longer. The novel's historical focus becomes more political in the later sections, though European influences on Coorg (the missionaries, the coffee planters, the prestige of an overseas education) are seen throughout.
Tiger Hills presents universal themes such as our relationships with our surroundings, the unpredictable patterns of our lives, and the happiness we evoke and stifle in one another, and the author's rich, mesmerizing language brings them all to life. And in composing this eloquent hymn to her homeland, she made me believe that Coorg must be the single most beautiful place on earth.
Tiger Hills was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK) in April at £18.99; Grand Central will publish it in the US next March, and Viking Canada is the Canadian publisher (also March). While not distracting, there are a surprising number of copyediting mistakes (misplaced apostrophes, missing commas) which I hope will be fixed in future printings.