Review: Garden of Dreams by Melissa Siebert

  • 5

Title: Garden of Dreams
Author: Melissa Siebert
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780143538707

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Melissa Siebert’s debut novel Garden of Dreams is the story of Eli de Villiers, a teenage wannabe rocker from Cape Town who travels to India with his mom Margo, a journalist. They explore the country on their way to Kathmandu, Nepal, where Eli is to visit his estranged father Anton, a world-renowned peacemaker. During their stay in Jaisalmer on the edge of the Thar Desert, Margo suddenly decides to abandon her son in the middle of the night to pursue a story on witchcraft allegations back home in Limpopo. She asks Badresh, the manager of the guesthouse where they are staying, to ensure that Eli is taken to the airport in Delhi to continue his journey north safely on his own. Margo’s staggeringly reckless decision (Eli is not even fourteen!) and blind trust in a complete stranger sends her son on a trip through the hell of child trafficking. He is kidnapped and taken to a brothel in the red-light district of Delhi, where he lands in the clutches of the vile Auntie Lakshmi, a lowlife criminal who develops a highly disturbing fascination with Eli. In the brothel Eli befriends some of the other children who are being drugged and raped for profit.

After he goes missing, Eli’s parents fly to India and seek the help of inspector VJ Gupta, one of the few cops around who are not in the pockets of the criminal world. Gupta, who roams the underworld of Delhi disguised as a cross-dresser to meet with his informants, tries to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, when the initial search for Eli proves fruitless, Anton returns to Nepal and Margo decides to disappear herself. While Anton still tries to enlist the help of some unlikely allies to find his son, Margo goes off to a faraway beach where she enters an abusive relationship with a drug addict who not only beats her but lures her into heroin.

In the meantime Eli and some of Auntie Lakshmi’s other captives manage to escape the brothel with the help of an unusual friend who pays dearly for the good deed. Together they embark on a danger-fraught trip back to their families. Eli’s plan is to assist them before continuing to Kathmandu to find his father.

This short outline of the story already hints at the major problem I had with Garden of Dreams. Almost from the start Siebert presents us with plot twists and character choices that are difficult to fathom. In real life, parents act irresponsibly all the time, children do stupid things, but if they behave like this in a story one wants to understand what leads to their actions. Also, we are surrounded by reports of parents searching for their missing children for years after their disappearance. Eli’s parents give up almost immediately: one returns to work and does continue with the search, but only because it coincides with his professional mission. The other completely loses the plot by checking out of the world and descending into her own little self-made hell where every decision she takes seems more ridiculous then the previous one. After his escape from the brothel, Eli also doesn’t consider the simplest solution of reaching his parents or any other help which could guarantee his safe return home. Instead he elects to trek to Kathmandu, not even knowing where his father is staying in the city.The feeble excuses given for his reasoning are unconvincing. Moreover, we are all aware that perversity and abuse of power come in all shapes and sizes, and yet I found Auntie Lakshmi and her henchmen to be mere caricatures of the kind of people they were supposed to portray: criminals involved in trafficking and prostitution. Inspector Gupta is also a flat character whose motives eluded me.

As the implausibility of the narrative mounted, I struggled to finish the novel. The margins of my copy of Garden of Dreams are full of comments of disbelief and outrage. The phrases “melodramatic”, “cringe” and “really?” feature prominently.

Child trafficking, child labour, abuse and rape are some of the most horrific crises we face in the world today. These are topics too important to be handled superficially. Siebert’s treatmentof them shies away from tackling the real issues. Despite Vikas Swarup’s over-generous endorsement of the novel as “a large-hearted tale … told with profound empathy”, Garden of Dreams lacks the psychological and emotional depth to do justice to any of them. Which is a great pity, because there is no doubt that Siebert has the stylistic ability to offer a more persuasive narrative.

Also read an interview with the author of Garden of Dreams.


  • 5


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    Melissa Siebert

    You have misread my book, gotten some of the facts wrong, even. Where does this venom come from? Isn't it better to review books you feel that people SHOULD read?! And it is so over-the-top mean-spirited to try to deny me the endorsement from Vikas Swarup, for God's sake! Many intelligent readers, many of them other writers, have called Garden of Dreams 'beautiful', 'powerful', 'an important book', 'superb', saying they 'couldn't put it down'. This review is so extreme I hope that people will not take it seriously; as one of my readers said of it: 'such negativity will backfire on the reviewer -- I for one have no interest in HER work now'. Really, it is much more helpful and engaging to write about books for which you have one shred of respect and can say something positive about ... just plain lazy and mean to trash a book like this. 

  • I agree with the author's response.   It can be difficult to review a book that doesn't appeal to you, but if a reviewer doesn't like a book to the extent that this reviewer does, she should refuse the task and perhaps suggest that it be handed over to someone else.

  • I think the job of a literary critic is to review books both good and bad.  Why should they only review books  that they like?  Sounds kind of crazy to me.  It would be like telling art critics to only talk about paintings they like.

    Having said that, I have also read the book.  I did not enjoy it at all.   Eli is at times behaving like a 22 year old, at others, totally idiotic in not contacting the correct authorities.  The book, for me, did not ring true at all.

    Maybe if I had read the above review, I might not have read the book, and would thus have had the free time to read something more appropriate to my taste.  I don't think the author should take it personally, just remember 'different strokes for different folks'.

  • I too have read the book and feel that there are valid points in the review.This is what reviews are for. Its is totally uncool for an author to comment like this on a negative review of her own book - this is the domain of Scientology or the Chinese government for Gods sake! Ms Siebert should be grateful for the time and care Ms Szczurek has taken over the review.  Maybe then she will  learn a thing or two. Maybe the next book will then be better.

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    Melissa Siebert

    I am not advocating reviewing only books one 'likes'. But I don't see the point of reviewing a book in which one sees no redeeming value at all. Rather, as Eva says, hand it over to another reviewer who might have a more balanced reaction. Do readers want to read rants, or do they want more thoughtful reviews? I'd argue the latter. I am not 'grateful' for the reviewer's review in the least, for reasons already stated, and I certainly learned nothing from it -- and as I suggested before, the many people who have loved the book found the review offensive and totally off-base. 

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