Sunday, May 23, 2010

A report on Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills

For all of the buzz created in the publishing world when Tiger Hills was purchased a year ago (Penguin India reportedly paid seven figures for it, the largest advance they'd ever offered for a debut novel), there's been little discussion about it so far online. It's been described as an Indian Gone with the Wind crossed with The Thorn Birds, which describes both the scope of the novel and its strong sense of place. There is a star-crossed love story within its pages, but not the one I expected; I also didn't realize that it would be elegantly crafted literary fiction rather than a more easygoing, popular narrative. But no matter. I still thought it was a wonderful book.

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.


  1. Enjoyed your review!!
    I'm really looking forward to reading this one.


  2. Very interesting review. and well written too.

  3. I have never even heard of this before... I must live under a rock!

  4. Thanks for your comments, all! The novel is brand new, with reviews and features just starting to appear in the British press. I read about it in a UK publishing magazine a year ago and preordered it from Book Depository shortly thereafter.

  5. Anonymous8:36 AM

    Great review. look forward to reading 'Tiger Hills'

  6. You obviously enjoyed the book! :) Coorg is indeed one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with a cuisine to match.

  7. Deviah6:05 AM

    Reading the book. Like you, was surprised by typos and some sloppy research by the author. Still a great read, will post again after I finish the book.

  8. Deviah4:18 AM

    Just finished reading the book,and am left with mixed feelings. The first third sets a gentle pace, this is a love triangle, we most certainly can guess the final outcome, the question is how will it be resolved? This is where Mandanna showcases her exquisite descriptive skills. You are transported to another world, another era and you will love the experience.
    Somewhere around page 100, the narrative takes off like a rocket. The story grabs you and takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions.
    The final third is about the next generation. The narrative slows down, the author's ability of paint a rich background tapestry all but disappears.
    My thinking is that the five years she took to write this novel was used mostly for parts 1 and 2. Part 3 could have probably been written in a couple of weeks.
    So,is this chick lit? Not really. Men would love to read it just as much as they loved to read GWTW. But this book is about suffering as only a woman could probably experience or understand it. My empathy with the heroine waned when she went into a forced marriage, it had disappeared completely by the time she called someone very close to her a curse. I am sure I reacted like most men at this point: What the heck is she doing???!!!
    Being from Coorg I loved that the novel was set there, but a couple of things surprised me. Coorgs don't say dosa and meesa; they say dosae and meesae. Men do not tonsure before a funeral, it is done the day after. Mandanna describes the fields as being lushly green during the sowing. Every Coorg knows that during transplanting the fields are grey and muddy.
    I'm not going to talk about the epilogue which I felt was a cheat. Talking about it will give it away to people who have not read the book. Let me say just this: In just two pages (in which Mandanna once again shows her descriptive prowess) the author reverses a key plot development that occurs a few chapters earlier. Authors are entitled to spin a tale as they would like, but what Mandanna does is like God saying one day, ok let's go back a hundred years and start all over again!

  9. Hi Deviah, thanks for reporting back! I preferred the first 2/3 of the novel to the concluding section, for the reasons you described, and by the very end, I wasn't feeling a lot of understanding for Devi's situation, either. Her grudge went on for so long, without any attempt to discuss why the misunderstanding occurred (I'm trying not to give too much away here). Re: the epilogue, it makes me wonder if a sequel may be in the offing.

    I can't comment on research issues, though the number of proofreading errors (including one on the back cover) made me wonder if the book was hurried into print. I would consider the publisher responsible for those, rather than the author.

  10. Ellen Colingsworth10:53 AM

    I enjoyed the book - it was a great transAtlantic flight read. By the time I arrived (Edinburgh - Boston), it was my best friend.

  11. I really enjoyed most of the book, but found it frustrating in places. At the end of the book it said 'Not the End.'

  12. Anonymous1:24 PM

    I had never heard of this book but saw the word Coorg and borrowed it from the library. Agree with you -- it is a beautifully written book. The landscape and the characters are so alive. Definitely worth a read.

  13. Carumbaiah9:42 AM

    The authors research was quite thorough and i felt like my grandparents description of their childhood had come to life.

  14. Just finished reading this book. Loved it. Kept me wanting more. Looking forward to the sequel.

  15. Half way through reading the book and its wonderful and very evocative. Enjoying every minute and as someone earlier said, after an initial slow development 9which was lovely in itself) the pace gets very fast. I have always been fascinated with Coorg, having heard stories from my parents as I was growing up. Our community comes from the Konkan coastline. Wonderful to read about them. Hope Sarita keeps writing.

  16. I haven't read the book yet ,but from the review i feel it has been connected to Kodagu my lovely native.Reading the book for my research paper .Hope,it has lot to tell that interests me.

  17. Hope you'll enjoy the read!