A moving, sometimes surprising story that examines the fallibility present in all of us as individuals, Before We Visit the Goddess is one of the briefest multi-generational tales I’ve ever tackled. Indeed, initially I was sceptical that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni could tell three women’s stories in just over 200 pages. Fall On Your Knees, probably my gold standard for multi-generational storytelling, clocks in at twice that length. Yet I had faith in CBD’s writing—I cannot believe it has been six years since I read The Palace of Illusions. I recognized her name and her style as soon as I saw this book on the library’s New Books shelf, and I knew I had to get it.
CBD accomplishes the multi-generational feat through narrative and stylistic choices that won’t work for everyone. This is a novel that jumps around in time a lot. Now, I’m a fan of straightforward, linear storytelling for the most part, with perhaps the occasional flashback for good expository and dramatic effect. So consider that when I compliment this novel on its disjointed narrative. You might almost say that CBD structures the story around the development of theme rather than plot—to say that it has an overall plot at all might be inaccurate—and while this can go horrendously wrong, I think it works very well here. The result is an intense study of three characters and the balancing act between the choices they make and the circumstances their lives thrust them into.
It’s intriguing to see CBD tease out the similarities among the three women. Sabitri, Bela, and Tara are all stubborn and driven to achieve their own goals. Each is intelligent and passionate about what interests her. Each chafes at the restrictions that constrain her, owing to her gender and class and race, within her time period. Although these women do not get along with each other, do not often see eye-to-eye regarding each other’s beliefs and decisions, they do so from a position of their own making. By showing us each woman’s experiences and crises, CBD helps us to understand why each one feels the way she does and judges the others accordingly.
So in this way, Before We Visit the Goddess reminds us that each person has their own story. That might seem obvious, especially when it comes to fictional characters, but I think it’s an easy fact for us to forget in daily life. How many of us hastily judge our parents, or coworkers, especially those who are older than us or who come from very different backgrounds? We smirk at their quaint ideas, frown at their socially-awkward or politically incorrect statements. We occasionally lack empathy, not because we are broken or defective, but simply because we are worn out by the challenges of our own lives. So it behoves us to stop, to think before we act or speak, to consider why someone else is acting the way they are. Conduct, rational or irrational, is typically the consequence of cumulative experiences. And while that doesn’t excuse bad conduct, it does shed light onto why we don’t always get along.
And so CBD shows us why empathy is so important. With each section, I felt sympathy for each of the women’s struggles. I saw how hard it was for Sabitri to build her business from the ground up following her husband’s death, the way she had to wrap herself in armour and refuse to let herself love or be too vulnerable. I saw how Bela, resentful of Sabitri’s inattentiveness, allowed herself to become infatuated with a man who promised more than he was able to give. Watching Bela’s friendship with Kenneth, and the way the two of them judge and misjudge each other, was easily one of my favourite parts of the book. I also enjoyed seeing Tara confront Bela on the eve of the latter’s move to an assisted living facility, that climactic discovery of the letter from Sabitri, and the tears and talk that resulted.
The ending of Before the Goddess is not much of an ending, as one might expect given the narrative’s non-linear structure. Nevertheless, the final scenes are at least fulfilling. We get a confrontation, and we get explanations as well as recriminations. It’s a little bit soapy, I suppose, but only in a good way. Like I said earlier, I don’t always—maybe seldom—like novels with this kind of structure, but CBD pulls it off. It’s a grand demonstration that you don’t need hundreds of pages of expositions and scenes in order to deliver character development; if you choose just the right moments, you can let the reader fill in the blanks.