Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's latest novel QUEEN OF DREAMS is another tale of East meets West. She writes what she knows best, about the world of the Indian immigrant living in America. In this novel, as in THE VINES OF DESIRE, Divakaruni takes the reader to northern California. Rakhi, a divorced mother of one, is trying to deal with life as a single mother and understand her own mother, who is able to interpret dreams.
Divakaruni blends both the metaphysical with the tangible physical world. Mrs. Gupta, Rakhi's mother, had kept a journal throughout her life. The chapters of QUEEN OF DREAMS are interspersed with these journal entries that describe her dreams and her everyday waking thoughts. One gets a glimpse of her life, from her days in India where she learned to be a dream interpreter to the day she met her husband, Rakhi's father. Mrs. Gupta continues her journal after she settles in America with her new husband and child, revealing a different perspective from what Rakhi sees as reality. The dreams themselves take on a poetic feel, filled with symbolism and folklore that reveal to the reader an image of India; not the physical aspects, but the cultural beliefs, the myths, and the legends. It's a contrast between Western Civilization and the Old World of the East.
The story opens with Mrs. Gupta's dream of a snake, the foreseer of change. She tries to guess what the snake is telling her, whether he is foretelling a birth or a death. She senses a bad omen and finally understands that it is her own death the snake is warning her about. The snake reassures her that, although death means an end to life, it can also mean a new beginning. It is snippets of dreams like this that help shape the mood of the book and prepares the reader for what is yet to come.
Unlike her mother, Rakhi is totally rooted in the physical world of Northern California. She knows very little about her parents' lives in India and wishes she knew more. She makes her living by running a coffeehouse called The Chai House with her best friend Belle, but Rakhi's real goal is to become an artist. She paints when she can, and her latest obsession is a painting that involves a man dressed in white. She doesn't know who he is, but he hovers just beyond her reach. She searches in vain for this man that she instinctively feels may have the key to some of the unknowns in her life.
One of the main themes is that of the relationship between mother and daughter, and it is done very well through the characters of Rakhi and her mother, as well as through Rhaki's six-year-old daughter Jona. Rakhi feels close to her mother, but there is a wall that prevents them from ever becoming truly close. Her mother refuses to discuss the dreams or her life in India, and Rakhi is bitter, unhappy that she does not understand this part of her mother's life, a life that is so guarded that it causes a rift in their relationship. Her divorce is another sore point between them. Her parents still love Sonny, but she can never explain to them why she had to leave him. Her daughter Jona loves both her parents, and as the novel progresses, Rakhi encounters problems with her own daughter because of her muddled relationship with Sonny.
Things change when Mrs. Gupta dies in a tragic automobile accident, and the dynamics of some of Rakhi's important relationships are changed forever. She notices her father for the first time, and he's not the same indifferent man she thought she knew. Together they read her mother's journal, an act that will change both of them forever. She also finds herself in a maturing relationship with Sonny, while she herself is changing and growing too.
QUEEN OF DREAMS is ultimately a story of how one woman touches those around her during her life and into death. Divakaruni's talent is not only good storytelling, but also creating characters that are dynamic and real in one way or another. One may not truly believe in the power of dreams, but that isn't the point of this book. The focus is on family, relationships, pride in one's heritage, and how one may not truly understand another as well as they think. Highly recommended.
--- Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton (Ratmammy@lofton.org)