cover image The Woman Who Climbed Trees

The Woman Who Climbed Trees

Smriti Ravindra. HarperVia, $27.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-0632-4048-3

Ravindra debuts with a stunning chronicle of an Indian woman’s coming-of-age. The story opens with Meena, a 14-year-old girl from Darbhanga, preparing for her wedding to Manmohan, a 21-year-old Nepalese student. The night before the ceremony, a local barber’s wife gives Meena exquisitely detailed mehndi tattoos and tells her an ambiguous story about a young bride who takes to climbing a tree every night and is condemned as a witch. Though the story unnerves Meena, the barber’s wife encourages her to marry anyway, as a woman’s “life is in limbo until she marries and changes mother, motherland, home, name, affections.” In Kathmandu, where she moves alone while Manmohan finishes his education, misery sets in quickly. Meena falls hopelessly in love with her sister-in-law Kumud and loathes her absent husband. After several miscarriages, Meena gives birth to a son, and two years later, a daughter. Later, with Manmohan in the house, Meena cannot meet her husband’s exacting standards for cooking and cleaning, and the children witness their parents’ sometimes violent interactions. Ravindra stuffs the epic with wildly irreverent scenes, such as Meena giving up her fertility prayers and instead fantasizing about Bollywood stars. Many Indian and Nepali stories, songs, and myths anchor the narrative, and by the end, which circles back to the witch story, their meaning in relation to Meena becomes increasingly complex. This is electrifying. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, Susanna Lea Assoc. (Feb.)