The love triangle plot, a beautiful woman torn between a predictable, safe suitor and an alluring "bad boy", is probably as old as stories themselves. Such a love triangle is at the center of Mandanna's novel, but although her expansive plot centers on a potentially shopworn conflict, this talented debut novelist continually defies expectations and enriches context to create a powerful story that seems both fresh and timeless.
For one thing, Mandanna skillfully arouses sympathy not only for Devi, the lovely young woman at the triangle's apex, but also for her lovers, the tiger hunter Machu and, particularly, the quietly thoughtful Devanna. Devanna, a shy boy, brought under the wing of a German missionary with complicated motives, finds himself terrorized at medical college, surviving only by virtue of his devotion to his studies and his abiding love for his childhood friend Devi. Although the ramifications of Devanna's single despicable action drive many of the events of the novel's latter half, readers have by that point of the novel gained a sympathy for him that it will take many of the other characters another several decades--and several hundred pages--to acquire. The way the romances build, only to collapse on themselves repeatedly, is all the more heartbreaking by virtue of the author's skillful use of dramatic irony and ability to arouse reader's sympathies.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that this compelling plot is built against a backdrop of such evocative beauty and complexity. The story stretches from 1878 to 1936 and takes place primarily in the Coorg region, a remote, relatively inaccessible area of Southern India, bordered by the mountains and the sea. These decades mark a time of rapid and momentous change worldwide, but in India particularly. The powerful, fiercely independent Coorgs [see sidebar], who had formerly been fairly isolated by virtue of geography and choice, find themselves participating in an increasingly global world and swept up in increasingly global concerns and conflicts. Through it all, however, the land remains both beautiful and changeable, full of potential to enrich or destroy. Mandanna describes its riches and beauties in language equally lush and colorful.
Tiger Hills is more than just the story of a love triangle. It's also a poignant and provocative reflection on change over time, on the ways in which loss and memory can engulf the living, on what remains when so much is lost. "'Love is breath, yes,'" reflects Devi, in words that reveal more truth than even she knows, "'but also what follows after, when all breath is done, when all that remains is silence. Love is water, yearning for the sea. It is the tree that must remain rooted while reaching for the sky. It is shadow, freighted with absence, the recesses where joy blossoms no more.'"
Propelled by romance, colored by loss, enriched by authentic details, Tiger Hills is both the saga of a people, and a land and the equally moving story of an inimitable woman and the two men who love her.
This review is from the April 6, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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