Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: Karma: A Verse Novel, by Cathy Ostlere (Razorbill, 2011)

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

I was immediately drawn into Cathy Ostlere's stunning debut novel, Karma, written in free verse and set in India during the turbulent period immediately after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.  Her 15-year old heroine, Maya, a Canadian teenager who’s half-Hindu, and half-Sikh, is traveling with her grief-stricken father to India with the ashes of her mother and a new diary to record her thoughts.  On the night they arrive, the prime minister is killed in her own garden by her Sikh guards, and In the turmoil and harrowing violence that erupt immediately after the assassination, Maya and her father are separated.  With no time to think, Maya cuts off her hair and disguises herself as a boy, running to the train station to try to find her father.  When he doesn’t arrive, she gets on a train anyway, not knowing exactly where she is headed in the chaos.  On the train journey, she witnesses unimaginable horrors, and is so traumatized she is unable to speak.  

Taken in by a kind doctor’s family, where no one knows who she is or where she comes from, Maya struggles to come back to life, with the help of Sandeep, an orphan boy who she’s just met.  She has lost everything--but she will find love, open her heart, and recover her voice with Sandeep, who eventually takes her back to Dehli to try to find her father.  While Maya is mute, Sandeep takes over the narration in the second half of the novel, giving the book two distinct voices.  Toward the end of the novel, Maya resumes the narration.  

This is a deeply romantic story of young love, passion, family, and trauma, where the evocative poetry serves to heighten the drama and suspense of the story.  Because of the suspense of the story line, you will want to hurry along to find out what happens, but don’t forget to take the time to admire Ostlere’s elegant poetry, sometimes written in two columns.  Asked often why the novel is written in free verse, she eloquently replies:  “The best answer I have to this question is that Karma’s poetic form suits the emotional lives of Maya and Sandeep. Their feelings are intense, their insights into the world are sharp and critical, and their understanding of what it means to be human is fresh, ragged, not yet smoothed by maturity, not yet smoothed by conventional narrative. Poetry is the perfect medium for their age. The short sentence. The precise image. The outbursts of feeling. Maya and Sandeep invite the reader to look inside their diaries where they reveal an intimate world of secrets, confessions and longings, and where poetry is a fire.”

Although this book looks imposing at over 500 pages, it is actually a relatively quick read because of the free verse format, and like the books of YA authors Ellen Hopkins and Sonya Sones, would be a good recommendation for reluctant readers.  With its exotic setting, it’s also a great fit with this year’s One World, Many Stories summer reading theme.  

Ostlere’s website gives additional background on the genesis of this novel, which took root during her own travels in India in 1984, and the origin of the character of Maya, who is inspired by a young Indian girl she knew growing up in Canada, as well as some stunning photographs evoking the brilliant colors of India.

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