by Bharati Mukherjee, reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Monday August 16, 7:30 pm
The title character in Bharati Mukherjee's new book, The Tree Bride, is an Indian woman from the last century who was married to a tree following the sudden death of her arranged-marriage. More than a century later, San Francisco resident Tara Bhattacharjee researches the history of this distant relative, discovering hidden links between her history with the Tree Bride, and the people she knows in the present day.
Tara is the narrator from Mukherjee's last novel, Desirable Daughters, and the two books are part of a proposed trilogy. The Tree Bride picks up where the last book left off, following the attempted murder of Tara and her husband Bish Chatterjee via a firebomb in their home. It was assumed that Bish--a co-founder of a hugely successful communications technology company--was the target. Nowadays, he has considerably less money, and is confined to a wheelchair as a result of the bomb blast. Tara is pregnant, and doing research in order to write a book about her relative, Tara Lata.
The histories Tara studies make up a great deal of The Tree Bride. One follows John Mist, an orphaned Englishman who makes his way aboard a ship bound for India. Following a pirate attack on the ship, and subsequent trial of the surviving crewmembers for mutiny, Mist escapes to a remote eastern part of the country and adopts the culture and language around him. It is there that the Tree Bride lives and where Tara's destiny is sealed. These portions are fascinating, loaded with the history of British Colonialism and the evolution of India.
Meanwhile, as Tara learns more and more about her lineage, she deals with pregnancy and the aftermath of the bomb blast, the perpetrator of which has yet to be caught. This plot is overly dramatic, but interesting enough, and essential to prevent the book from getting mired in too much historical information.
Mukherjee's focus on the past suggests that our histories are all intertwined and may one day intersect. Her focus on the present wisely tells us that technology is only going to make that happen soon.