QUEEN OF DREAMS
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Doubleday. 340 pp. $21.95
Our dream world overflows with confused images -- streets turning to quicksand, talking fish and so on. Yet dreams have a remarkable quality of seeming real. Once awake, we remain spellbound, muttering, "What did it mean?"
It's this gulf between dreams and reality that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni seeks in her fourth novel, Queen of Dreams. (Her other books include the bestselling novels The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart and collections of short fiction and poetry.) Divakaruni often focuses on characters balancing two worlds, particularly Indian immigrants struggling through life in America. Now she attempts to bridge the gulf in this affable yet frustrating story of a mysterious, reticent mother, gifted with the ability to interpret dreams, and the daughter yearning to decipher her.
American-born Rakhi, artist and co-owner of a funky Berkeley teashop, is the daughter of Indian immigrants whose silence haunts her: "I hungered for all things Indian because my mother never spoke of the country she'd grown up in -- just as she never spoke of her past." There's plenty that isn't talked about: Mr. Gupta's weekend drinking, Mrs. Gupta's dream interpretation, the mutual disappointment that Rakhi didn't inherit this gift. Yet Rakhi hides behind her own silence: She has told no one why she left her husband, Sonny, who shares custody of their 6-year-old daughter and longs for reconciliation.
After her mother dies in an inexplicable, late-night car crash, Rakhi discovers a collection of her "dream journals," written in Bengali. She's forced to rely on her father to translate, though "I cannot remember a single instance in my life when I felt close to him." Her father tells her the journals contain "lessons, stories from old books, famous dreams, clients, people she knew," and Rakhi demands, "Isn't there anything about herself?" That's exactly what these journals offer, all the words her mother couldn't speak.
Rakhi's struggles are engaging enough, but the language of the dream journals soars, momentarily transporting this book to another realm. The writing in these chapters evokes a life as believable and fantastic as one's own dreams: "Calcutta was full of dreams: not only the ones being dreamed by its present inhabitants but old, interrupted ones that hung motionless over the sluggish brown Ganga and colored the night with their confusions." Along with Mrs. Gupta's captivating history and rebellion leading to marriage, we're treated to study notes ("A mirror stands for a false friend") and difficult confessions ("Worst of all, I have not loved anyone fully, not my husband or child").
The terror of Sept. 11 strikes -- "Is it really real?" Rakhi whispers as she watches the horror unfold on TV. The teashop becomes the target of a brutal attack by self-professed "patriots" spouting anti-foreigner sentiments. While mourning the many losses of Sept. 11, Rakhi adds to her list, "And people like us, seeing ourselves darkly through the eyes of strangers, who lost a sense of belonging." While Rakhi's anger is justified, these moments feel forced, as if the author wanted something topical for the book jacket.
The book doesn't draw a firm line between reality and dreams: Shadowy strangers materialize in Rakhi's life, doing good and possibly evil; an unexplained package spurs Rakhi to rethink her art; Mrs. Gupta's death defies explanation. When reading the dream journals, Rakhi and her father speculate, "Did she only imagine it all?" as if Mrs. Gupta's extraordinary past were simply another dream. This deliberate blurriness suggests a sleeper awakening, mirroring Rakhi's gradual understanding of herself and her mother. The technique generally works. Readers accept a certain amount of coincidence when the story moves along smartly, as this one does. But this fuzzy reality can backfire. The episode at the heart of Rakhi's marital rift is sickening, but we learn the details impressionistically, and Rakhi wonders, "What really did happen that night? Could she, indeed, have been confused?" Luring readers into thinking this nightmarish incident might be a dream denies our emotional investment in Rakhi and provides a too-easy route to forgiveness.
Divakaruni's use of a plot that relies on coincidence and happenstance creates a similar problem. Mrs. Gupta says, "A dream is a telegram from the hidden world." Here dreams are filled with portent and daily lives are laden with hidden meaning. "And what's a coincidence?" Rakhi notes; "And what is an accident?" asks her mother. Perhaps each detail of existence is taut with significance. One could almost be persuaded by the book's final, transcendent moments, when Rakhi finds the perfect web of connection that interpreters of dreams seek. Yet for all that beauty and hope, the ultimate frustration of Queen of Dreams is that its connections have come too conveniently: packages, unexplained strangers, journals with answers, as if life were but a dream. *
Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novels "A Year and a Day" and "Pears on a Willow Tree."