Poetic, but lackluster ‘Queen of Dreams’ is just the same old story of self-discovery

    What cruel karma had placed me in the care of the only two Indians who never mentioned their homeland if they could help it?”

    And so begins the long lament that is “Queen of Dreams,” Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s newest novel. Alternating between a mother and daughter’s narratives, Divakaruni’s latest oeuvre is a meditation on self-discovery, roots and coming to terms with life. Ironically, the only lamentable part of the novel is that Divakaruni’s story fails to escape from the stereotypical umbrella of South-Asian immigrant literature that is so often marked by an identity crisis involving a problematic “American” self that ultimately finds its path to salvation by embracing the culture of one’s “motherland.”

    While “Queen of Dreams” is technically beautiful prose, the plot is too contrived, and the characters too one-dimensional. Rakhi, the protagonist, is constantly haunted by her curiosity for any clues giving some insight into her mother, who was a professional dream interpreter. Yes, that’s right — a professional dream interpreter. Reading the dream journals she finds after her mother’s sudden, unexplained death, Rakhi starts getting some answers to questions she has always had, and formulates even more questions over recently discovered incidents. Her personal life consists of her ex-husband, their daughter, her father and her best friend, who is the token “Americanized” character. (Common in many South-Asian immigrant novels and usually displaying some exaggerated characteristics — in this case, pink hair and multiple piercings — the “Americanized” character initially rejects anything South Asian, and often ends up doing a 180 by the end of the novel.)

    Remaining faithful to her writing style, Divakaruni brings in elements of mysticism, magic and mystery to the novel — further perpetuating the stereotype of the “exotic” land that is India. But writing a novel about dreams and using them as a lens through which to interpret reality can be problematic, as is illustrated in this work. With the discovery of the dream journal, many unexplainable, surreal things start happening in Rakhi’s life — shadowy strangers materialize in her life, doing good and possibly evil; an unexplained package prompts her to rethink her art; her mother’s death defies explanation. There is no line drawn between reality and dreams, which can be charming, as seen in Chagall’s paintings, electro-pop, the latest French couture, or in whimsical literature — but which simply ends up being awkward in Divakaruni’s novel as she tries to grapple with “serious” issues such as death, identity and all the other complicated issues they give birth to. Rather than giving the novel a light touch, the framework of dreams ends up harshly contrasting the book’s other themes.

    The last few chapters of the book discuss Sept. 11 and come as a complete surprise, since Divakaruni’s critique of the event and racial implications that followed are not consistent with the style and content of the rest of her novel. It almost seems as if she is trying desperately to fit in as many ideas as possible into “Queen of Dreams,” but the weak plot and characters ultimately sag into a confusing, ambiguous novel. That is not to say that there are not elements of sheer beauty in her work — constructing a novel around a protagonist who owns a tea shop and works as an artist in Berkeley almost guarantees creative, insightful and charming bits — and Divakaruni, an award-winning and highly published author, delivers beautifully. Yet for all those meditations on beauty and hope, the ultimate frustration of “Queen of Dreams” is that everything comes too conveniently — journals with answers to nagging questions, random packages, mysterious strangers — as if life were only a simple dream.

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