From Publishers Weekly
When writers set their novels in exotic places, there is always the risk that the background will outshine the characters and plot. Such is the case with travel writer Payne's debut. At first, the novel's setting--the violence-ridden holy city of Varanasi, India--seems well matched by its formidable protagonist--400-pound, middle-aged hostess of the Saraswati Guest House, Natraja, formerly Estelle Wilson of Neavis, N.C. One by one, her guests arrive--shy businesswoman Jill Thornton; environmentalist T.J. Clayton, who's having marital problems back home; and adventurous, elderly widow Marie Jasper, who has come in search of healing and enlightenment--and Natraja goes out of her way to intimidate all of them. Her behavior is so contrary to what one would expect of an innkeeper that one is curious about the tragic past that has made her so bitter. Natraja lets her guard down only with Ramesh, the guest house's elderly cook and her sole friend. When her long-time astrologer predicts that a guest will disrupt the peace of the inn, Natraja has yet another reason to be sour. Tensions rise as outbreaks of violence lead to the imposition of a curfew upon Varanasi. Flashbacks of the ill-fated, adolescent love affair in North Carolina, which was the source of Natraja's unhappiness, intersperse with scenes of the city of Varanasi, which steals and retains the spotlight. Sensuous descriptions of its people, urban wildlife and landmarks--especially its legendary holy river, the Ganges--testify to the author's love for this sacred locale. Her sensitive depiction of the friction between the Hindu and Muslim populations, as experienced by both residents and outsiders, lends the age-old battle an urgency that far outshines the somewhat tedious subplots involving Natraja's lackluster guests. Travelers interested in absorbing India's cultural background and atmospheric ambience will enjoy this novel.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
To immerse oneself in a different culture can seem romantic and mind expanding, not to mention spirit cleansing and nourishing. But immersion also implies the risk of drowning, a point clearly made by journalist-travel writer Payne, who creates a poetic mosaic of sights, smells, sounds, and tastes as she limns a square mile of Varanasi, an ancient Indian city and pilgrimage site. The haze from continuously burning funeral pyres, the pleas of impoverished children, the smells of the perfume market, and the droning rhythms of holy men chanting by the sacred Ganges overtake the senses and both disgust and enthrall the Western travelers staying at the Saraswati Guest House. Situated in the middle of Varanasi's frighteningly tangled maze of claustrophobic lanes barely wide enough for two small wheeled carts, the establishment's manager is the sari-clad Madame Natraja, a reclusive, surly white woman weighing more than 300 pounds, a mysterious and fascinating blend of East and West. When religious murders leads to a curfew, the travelers become captives of Madame, her house, and the violent city where death becomes everyone's familiar. Whitney ScottCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved