The coming-of-age tale holds special appeal for writers, enabling the revisitation of the defining moments in their own lives that propelled them towards the scary, uncertain world of adulthood. Done badly, the genre can be self-indulgent and formulaic. Done well, it can be something like Kalpana Swaminathan’s new book, an often bizarre yet completely enthralling story of a young girl living two lives.
The girl is Tenral ("say it with a soft t, a short e, a barely whispered d between the middle consonants and with a short uh for the last vowel -- or don’t say it at all," she tells us) and the tale is set during her last months of school at St Agnel’s Convent. Tenral has family but we never get to know them (we never really care to anyway), which is fitting since she’s so much the wild child -- a creature more of her own imagination than of anything else. She’s precocious, individualistic and opinionated ("Enid must’ve forgotten how 14 feels by the time she got around to writing the Girls at St Clare’s books" she blasphemes).
Tenral also has the ability to shade prosaic real-world events with colours that come from a landscape her mind inhabits. Soon enough, her imagination is sparked by her English teacher -- real name Fleur D’Cruz but known to us as Mrs Alfie, because Tenral only thinks of her in terms of the teacher’s long-dead lover whose name finds its way into various poetry readings.
As the book progresses, Tenral weaves her own stories about Mrs Alfie’s tragic past; but inevitably she -- and we -- must deal with the truth. Tenral’s fantasy world soon reveals its function as a defensive device, a way of coping with the horrors of a world where Big Bad Wolves can turn out to be kindred spirits but human beings aren’t to be trusted. These strands of fantasy and reality come together in the heartrending penultimate chapter where Tenral pieces together her teacher’s story with a revisionist take on Little Red Riding Hood.
Ambrosia for Afters is a magical, lyrical story, at it’s best when depicting a world where Euclid uses geometry to help Archimedes solve matters of the heart, and ugly princesses learn Braille so they can marry sightless suitors. There are delightful reworkings of popular children’s stories, at least one of which -- "The Frog Who Would A-Wooing Go", about a frog’s attempts at wooing a fish and then a cat -- is worth the cover price.
A taster: "Don’t get me wrong, you’re only a frong, as amphi as they bian. But I’m a cat and you know that, a mammal positively feline"A minor reservation, albeit one that might not be easily dissociated from the author’s intent, is that the story drags a little when we’re presented things as they actually happen, as opposed to when they’re filtered through Tenral’s imagination. Take away the skilful writing from these passages, and you’re left with a straightforward text about disillusionment and heartbreak that could have come from a dozen other books in the genre.
"Yes, you’re a cat, I do know that, a sweet domestic mouser. That’s the reason, all this season, I was warned by every grouser: Love her and leave her but don’t espouser!"
The other thing that isn’t completely convincing is the device of the Song -- Tenral’s chosen term for "what we look for every moment of our lives". There is no time, no number inside the Song, she tells us, only a rush of all the colours and smells and textures of the world. And later: "Having known it once, you could eat the rest, the bitter, stinking, leathery stuff of life, because you told yourself there would always be ambrosia for afters." In a book where subtlety is the essence, and where the reader is generally trusted to make the right connections, these portions are a touch forced and over-explanatory.
But these slight flaws are more than made up for by the whole. Swaminathan, who’s written books for children before, acknowledges the influence of the Brothers Grimm on her life and work. "The storyteller’s world is unaccountable," she says. "It is the world of human yearning, in which all of us belong." Her story, like the best grim fairytales (however you spell it), shines through with truth and beauty.