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Remember the old saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach? It appears that the publishing industry is rousing the adage from its slumber to use as a marketing mantra. Just take a look at the titles of some books that have been published over the last several years: Like Water for Chocolate; The House on Mango Street; Still Life With Rice; Enchiladas, Rice and Beans. And now there is a new one to add to the collection or, as the case may be, menu: The Mistress of Spices, a first novel by award-winning poet Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, who previously put out a compilation of her short fiction, Arranged Marriage.
In Divakaruni’s novel, we meet Tilo, a sage (as it were) Indian healer who tells the story of where she has been, and how she became what she is:
“I am a Mistress of Spices,” she confesses in the first line of the first page. “I can work the others too. Mineral, metal, earth and sand and stone. The gems with their cold clear light. The liquids that burn their hues into your eyes till you see nothing else….I know their origins, and what their colors signify, and their smells. I can call each by the true-name it was given at the first, when earth split like skin and offered it up to the sky. Their heat runs in my blood. From amchur to zafran, they bow to my command. At a whisper they yield up to me their hidden properties, their magic powers.”
After being mentored in the mysteries of such magic by the “Old One” in a place referred to merely as “the island,” rebellious and headstrong Tilo is transformed into an aging arthritic woman who oversees a small Indian spice shop in Oakland, Calif. Tilo’s task is simpleshe is to call upon the aid of the spices to help her customers, who are in urgent need of assistance. But there are restrictions: She is never to utter her name, look in a mirror, set foot outside the shop, share her gift with those who are not of her “own kind,” touch another person, or become emotionally or personally involved in their crises.
Not only does Tilo break each of these rules, she finds herself falling for a young American man, the first person she has ever met who can see past her physical being into her soul.
“I want him to know. And I want him, knowing, to be amused. How long has it been since someone looked at me except in ignorance. Or awe. As I think this, loneliness fills my chest, a new dull aching weight, like drowning water. It is a surprise. I did not know that Mistresses could feel so lonely. American I too am looking. I thought all my looking was done when I found the spices but then I saw you and now I no longer know.”
From the moment Tilo discovers this void in herself, she realizes that the emptiness will continue to grow until she fills it or it consumes her. Either way, Tilo is faced with a dilemma. Should she surrender every power she possesses for the one she does not, that of love? And even if she decides to do so, will she be able to without losing the very soul she wants to offer the American?
It was with eager anticipation that I awaited this novel. Divakaruni is a superb writer. In this novel, as in all her previous work, she captures both the hope and the disillusionment of the immigrant experience with grace and impartial honesty. There is the battered wife trapped in her arranged marriage, the taxi driver who confronts the back-alley dangers of his new city, the young woman who falls in love with a Latino from the barrio, and many others like them. Although Divakaruni allows each of the customers who wander into Tilo’s shop to shine in all their pain and imperfection, the characters’ dialogue is almost indistinguishable from the narrator’s. No matter who is being quoted, their words take on the same rhythm and style as Tilo’s. But this is not that problematic, because their lives are so distinct, so well defined, and their individual worlds never intersect.
Divakaruni has proved time and again that she is, indeed, a mistress of language. Her cross-genre leap from poetry to short fiction was a seemingly effortless one. However, with this last move, from short fiction to a full-length novel, it is clear that she has not thoroughly mastered the genre. All the ingredients are here for an enchanting tale, yet The Mistress of Spices does nothing more than whet the appetite.
The book’s major weaknesses do not lie in the writing but in its structure and its length. The first third of the novel flip-flops from Tilo’s past ordeals on the island to her present involvements in the spice shop. It is frustrating and confusing for the reader to be pulled out of one anecdote, thrust haphazardly into another one, and then, within paragraphs, reinserted into the first one. Especially when these passages describe different periods in the narrator’s life. A fluid, linear narrative would have been preferable.
Even after the story starts flowing smoothly, the plot is not intricate or compelling enough to carry it for another 200 pages. Tilo’s profound parables and heady observations continuead nauseamuntil Divakaruni’s words start drifting aimlessly and, before long, lose their potency altogether. But in light of Divakaruni’s laudable dexterity with metaphor and imagery, and her ability to carve out complex personalities, don’t be surprised if, in her second novel, she serves up something that not only puts her in the game, but also places her at the top of it.CP