________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 9. . . .October 29, 2010


The Deadly Conch. (Tara Trilogy, v 3).

Mahtab Narsimhan.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2010.
286 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 978-1-55488-794-1.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4.

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



The last few moments in the cave flashed through her mind once again; Kali’s screams as she had hurtled to her death. She clapped her hands over her ears. Would she ever be able to forget? Would time ever dim this ghastly image? Everyone thought she was a hero; they envied her, but they had no idea about the terrible nightmares she had. The memories she had to struggle hard to forget, lest they overwhelm her.

“You’re happy that my mother is dead,” a voice whispered in her ear. “Isn’t that what you said?”

Tara’s skin crawled. She did not even have to turn around; she knew who it was. A voice that oozed such hatred could only belong to one person. She stood still for a moment, wishing Layla would go away. Layla grabbed Tara’s shoulder and spun her around. Her black eyes glittered as she held Tara’s gaze. “Watch your back, dear sister. I’ll make sure you suffer horribly for what you did to my mother. That’s a promise.”

When she returns in triumph to Morni, Tara justly feels she has overcome Zarku and Kali and their evil and deserves something of a hero’s welcome. But to her astonishment, the admiration and friendship of the villagers is short-lived. A dead dog is left in the temple, and the wells of both Morni and the neighbouring village are contaminated, and suddenly the villagers are suspicious that Tara is behind these events and is bringing bad luck to everyone. Tara realizes that, although her evil stepmother Kali is dead, she has the power to seek revenge through her daughter Layla. Try as she might, Tara cannot convince the villagers that Layla is behind all of these malicious acts. Since no one believes her, Tara summons up her last ounce of courage and call for the help of Lord Yama and his deadly conch. Lord Yama escorts Tara to the Underworld to seek advice on solving the situation but warns her that she will have a mere 24 hours to return to the village and restore calm before he will again take her to the Underworld where she will remain for eternity as her part of the bargain with him.

     The Deadly Conch is the third book of the Tara trilogy, and many of the characters from The Third Eye and The Silver Anklet are again part of the story. Narsimhan’s writing is an interesting mixture of adventure, folk tale and myth. She is a native of Bombay (Mumbai), and the sights, sounds and smells of India seem to permeate her work. The heat and humidity almost rise from the pages of the book, and western readers understand, for example, just how important the village well is. Water must be available to sustain life even at its most basic, and so, when the well is contaminated, the children walk miles to fill pots with just enough water for the necessities. The water theme reoccurs as we learn that rainfall has been scarce, meaning poor harvests and hunger in the current year and few seeds to plant. So whether it is a contaminated well or gods who are angry because the temple has been violated with a dead animal, the result is the same: no water = no life.

      The novel shifts from the real world to the mythical one easily. One day Tara is at home trying to find a solution to the village problems and deal with the violence and anger of the villagers as, for example, her home mysteriously burns to the ground. The next day, she is with Lord Yama riding to the Underworld on his bull. Typical of a mythical/fantasy story, the basis of the novel is the ongoing tension between good and evil portrayed both in the realm of the gods and in the real-life characters.

     This final piece of the trilogy finds Tara still learning, still maturing and having to make difficult decisions. She often stands alone, not always able to trust the villagers or even her own family. Unlike many young adult novels, there is no fairy tale ending to The Deadly Conch, and not all of the ‘good guys’ survive. However Tara realizes just how strong and self-reliant she can be in the face of both danger and sorrow. Perhaps this is the theme Narsimhan wishes to stress.

      The Deadly Conch will appeal to any who are interested in world literature and in the culture of India in particular. Many foods and items of clothing are referred to by their Hindi names, and this language adds authenticity to the book. Although these terms are easily understood in context, Narsimhan has included a short glossary at the end of the novel. Readers of many genres will enjoy this novel as it crosses the boundaries of fantasy, mythology, adventure and coming of age novel.

     Those of us who met Tara at the beginning of the trilogy have watched and worried as she confronted the forces of evil and their horrific plans for her. She made difficult decisions and personal sacrifices, all in an attempt to maintain what she saw as the common good. In this final volume, she realizes that hatred and revenge are concepts which have no place in her world. Thank you, Tara, and Mahtab Narsimhan, for a delightful series of adventures.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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