Author: Melissa Siebert
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2014
Only Eli never makes it to his destination. He is kidnapped by child traffickers and ends up in a brothel in Delhi owned by the horrible madam Lakshmi, who develops a decidedly unhealthy fixation with the pretty lad.
The plucky Indian inspector VJ Gupta assures Eli’s parents that he is doing his best to find the boy, but as the weeks pass, hope dwindles. Margo falls into dissolution and despair, while Anton falls in with Maoist rebels in a desperate bid to save his son.
Meanwhile, Eli is made of sterner stuff than his parents expect, and when an opportunity for escape presents itself, he embarks on an epic quest to find his father – lost in a strange land and with no one to turn to other than the ragged band of children all trying to get home – and stay one step ahead of the child traffickers.
In Garden of Dreams, it’s not so much the physical journey that transforms Eli (and to a certain extent the secondary characters) but rather how his external circumstances impact on his inner landscape.
At the start, Eli strikes me as a self-involved boy (as many young teens are), and we join him at a time when he is at his most vulnerable – and in his case his naïveté has severe consequences. Yet this crucible in which he discovers himself, though fraught with danger, serves to strengthen him by stripping away the child to reveal a sensitive, resilient young man who, above all is a survivor who possesses much compassion.
Margo and Anton each have their realisations to make, particularly that they have failed as parents. Anton has run away from his issues by trying to save the world, whereas Margo sinks into her maudlin introspection to the point where she is mired in her feelings of inadequacy. Gupta and Lakshmi exist as polar opposites, each caught in an eccentric orbit around the other – their navigation of a corrupt world brings two distinctive perspectives of the same setting into play.
Much like real life, there is no tidy, convenient closure to Garden of Dreams. And as reader, I am content with this. Rather, it is a space for reflection against a cultural backdrop both alien and exotic, filled vividly with equal measures of beauty and darkness.