Fourteen-year-old Zoon Razdan is witty, intelligent and deeply perceptive. She also has a deep connection with magic. She was born into it.
The house that she lives in is fantastical—life thrums through its wooden walls—and she can talk to everything in it, from the armchair and the fireplace to the books, pipes and portraits!
But Zoon doesn’t know that her beloved house once contained a terrible force of darkness that was accidentally let out by one of its previous owners. And when the darkness returns, more powerful and malevolent than ever, it is up to her to take her rightful place as the Guardian of the house and subsequently, Kashmir.
In her debut novel, the author, Zuni Chopra, doesn’t just make a house speak, she makes the Kashmir valley sing with ferocity – of yearning for its glorious past and longing for a present that stills its beauty as an untarnished snapshot. The prose in this book is absolutely gorgeous. The author infuses magic and personality into everything around Zoon, be it the house she has grown up in (which, quite literally, holds magic) or the valley that makes up her entire world. So whether it is a fireplace being possessive about his fresh stock of logs, or a wise-sounding armchair maintaining order among bickering bookshelves, you just buy into her imagination of the house and what it stands for.
I loved the fact that the author didn’t write this book from any political standpoint. She also steers clear of demonizing any country, religion or military institution. The book is deeply allegorical, and through the idea of Zoon being a “Guardian” of her house, the author explores what it means to call a geographical area your home, and to what extent is it your duty to guard it. The “villain” of this story is basically the manifestation of all things vile and sinister plaguing the valley, and I loved how the book conveys the idea of securing your home, purging or keeping “evil” at bay, before expanding the same to your town or city.
This was magical realism at its whimsical best, the kind where even “non-magical” mundane moments are elevated to something else. There is humor in everyday observations; my favorite was probably the one where walking across a floor of people in sleeping bags was likened to navigating through fat bed bugs. The only criticism I can make is this – there were times when I felt the writing was too wordy. It got better as the book progressed but I did struggle with the initial chapters – especially with too many sentences like this:
“Instantly, every man on the doorstep felt suffused with a cosy, quiet calm – not a heated, eerie sort of silence, but the calm that wafts like pure cotton around one’s healing heart”
There are a few passages that are set in 16th/18th century to give some context about the history of the house and its magical origins. However, such parts are kept to a minimal in the book, thereby avoiding info-dump and slowing down the present-day plot. Moreover, the theme of this book is such that it doesn’t really need a fleshed out background to convey ideas effectively. However, I did feel that we didn’t get to know Zoon’s mom as much as we should have. I wasn’t sure about how much she was privy to regarding the house’s history. I didn’t connect to her and to her and Zoon’s relationship as much as I should have through most of the book. The last few pages did make up a bit for it though..
In contrast, Zoon’s grandma had a much more compelling presence and relevance to the story, and with Zoon’s new-found friend Altaf, and some neighboring families completing the secondary cast of characters, there are enough human stories to keep us invested in their lives.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough; especially since this is a recently released book with not much buzz in the blogging community… Do check it out, it is a precious little gem of a novel!