I don’t have a lot of experience with Indian mythology, but Kaikeyi by Vaishnavi Patel has shown me that this is a gross oversight. Kaikeyi is a poetic retelling of a popular Indian myth. Patel uses stunning prose to tell a story that investigates ideas around feminism, parenting, culture, and societal change. Because I am unfamiliar with the myth I am unable to tell how much came from the original mythos and how much comes from Patel’s brilliant mind. Regardless, the finished product is a beautiful book and easily one of my top picks for the year.
Kaikeyi’s story is one of making the best of tragedy. As the only daughter of a royal family of sons, she is raised on tales about the might and benevolence of kings and gods. Yet she watches as her father unceremoniously banishes her mother and later listens as her own worth is determined by what alliance she can forge as a bride. Desperate for some measure of independence, she turns to the texts she once read with her mother and discovers magic to influence those around her with the power of suggestion. With this power, Kaikeyi transforms herself from an overlooked princess into a warrior, diplomat, and most favored queen, determined to carve a better world for herself and the women around her. But this magic comes with a cost and a number of nebulous moral quagmires that must be navigated. Kaikeyi must determine what kind of woman, mother, and leader she wants to be and the legacy she intends to leave behind.
Kaikeyi is a story about beautiful writing and hard questions. It is rare to experience a book that provided me with as many challenging questions as this one does. Nothing in this tale is cut and dry, and there are a number of very stressful situations that our characters find themselves in with no clear answer. Some of these include power and the responsibility that comes with it, the pursuit of happiness vs. what you owe the world, how to use status and power to make the world a better place, feminism in a complicated society, and how to handle when the child you raise is a bad person. A large portion of this story revolves around Kaikeyi’s experience as a mother and one of her problematic sons. Watching her judge her feelings as a mother with her feelings as a member of the world was deeply emotionally moving and something I have never read in a book before. Kaikeyi is a wonderfully complex character that I wish I could read more about.
My only real problem with this book is its somewhat lack of an ending. I was really hoping that Kaikeyi was the intro to a trilogy, but the book abruptly wraps everything up and just ends. I get the sense that this is very similar to the original source mythos, but I would really have liked Patel to deviate here and provide her own take on how the tale concluded. Instead, I was treated to one of the most engrossing stories of the year only to have it wipe its hands of an ending and walk away. It was extremely frustrating, but I still absolutely think the book is something everyone should check out and read.
Kaikeyi is a beautiful and evocative tale that focuses on interesting conflicts that capture both the imagination and intellect. I wish it had a less abrupt end, but there is not a single other thing I would change about the story. Vaishnavi Patel has real talent as an author and is one of the best new voices of the year. I hope she continues to bring more Indian myths and more to life with her skill.
Rating: Kaikeyi – 9.0/10