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Nelson Mouellic photo
Cathy Ostlere gives her novel intimacy and immediacy.

Nelson Mouellic photo Cathy Ostlere gives her novel intimacy and immediacy.

This young-adult fiction is a sweeping romance stretching from the Canadian Prairies to the crowded streets of New Delhi and into the windswept dunes of India's Thar Desert.

Calgary author Cathy Ostlere, a former Winnipegger, is known for her 2008 memoir, Lost, about her search for her brother who went missing at sea.



The stage adaptation, which premiered at Theatre Calgary, opens at Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg on Jan. 19.

Karma, Ostlere's first YA novel, was released in hardcover last spring but is just out this month in trade paperback. The story begins in the fall of 1984 with 15-year-old Maya and her father, Amir, in an airplane en route to his native India. On his lap he cradles an urn containing the ashes of Leela, Maya's mother.

Maya tells the story of how her Hindu mother fell in love with her Sikh father, against the wishes of both their families. With no welcoming home within the strict caste system of India, the young couple emigrated to southwestern Manitoba to begin a new life together.

Maya describes the heartbreaking experience of living as an outsider because her colour and culture set her apart from her Canadian peers. But for Maya's mother the isolation is even greater and eventually becomes unbearable:

"It's not home. / It's empty. / I'll never be free here. I belong / nowhere. All my gods and goddesses / have disappeared."

Upon arriving in India, Maya and Amir are plunged into chaos. Indira Gandhi has just been assassinated by her Sikh guards and the nation has erupted into a hell of bloody racial violence.

Maya and Amir hide out in a hotel room, but as the fighting gets closer, Amir decides to leave to find a safe haven for them at the home of an old friend. After two days he hasn't returned and Maya must figure out either how to find him or, failing that, to get herself out of harm's way. This is where our story really takes off.

Maya must contend with murderous hordes on the streets and in the train stations. She witnesses unspeakable violence, is tormented by women who suspect her of being a prostitute, she nearly gets married off to a sadistic bully, falls in love, loses her voice and is kept away from her beloved.

This novel plays well to its audience, with shocking twists and heartbreaking losses at every turn. Maya is like every teenage girl: no one really understands her and she must be steadfast in her courage in order to hold on to her identity:

"There are times for crying, and/ this isn't one of them. This isn't tragic. This isn't/ sad. This isn't about loss. This is about saying/ who I am."

Ostlere has set herself a hefty challenge. Not only is Karma written in free verse, it is written in diary form: a popular style in YA fiction. And while the convention becomes somewhat strained when the source of the diary entries changes from Maya to her young romantic interest, it generally serves the story very well.

The first-person voice gives the piece an intimacy and immediacy, while the verse form gives it a lightness and scope for some truly beautiful imagery.

Whether it's the austerity of the winter prairie or the cacophony of the Indian city, Ostlere creates rich worlds for her characters to inhabit and for her readers to get swept away in.


Debbie Patterson is the Carol Shields writer-in-residence at the University of Winnipeg.