It's always fun to find a novel that transports the reader into a new world, or into a culture so different that it seems like it could be on another planet.

The main character is an unwanted girl child born somewhere in India. She gains power in one way, only to toss it away for a different kind of power. When the allure of that life fades, she once again abandons it. She washes up on the shore of a mysterious island. Here the First Mother teaches initiate maidens all the secrets and spells of spices. The young women become Mistresses of Spices and are sent through an enchanted fire to locations around the world where their special skills are to be used for help and healing.

The main character takes the name of Tilo, for the healing and protective sesame seeds. With the dire warnings of the First Mother still ringing in her ears, she passes through the magical fire and lands in a spice shop in Oakland, California. As a Mistress of Spices, there are many rules by which she must live, conduct her life and her spice-and-spell dispensing business. Tilo starts breaking rules to fulfill her curiosity and desires. Her magical abilities become skewed. In spite of this, Tilo continues down the forbidden path...with an unknown retribution looming in the near future.

Divakaruni spins a magical and evocative story. The language is in turns poetic, harsh, and alluring. The problems that surround Tilo's clients have a tug-and-pull of familiarity, as does Tilo's impulsive need to offer assistance beyond the prescribed boundaries of her vows. The book explores the paradoxical nature of right and wrong, and how the wisdom of the heart can clash with the wisdom of the mind.

The story is animated with the powers of magical spices, some familiar, some exotic, some utterly unknown. The author explores the difficulties of transporting cultural traditions to America, the expectations of immigrants and the sorrows and misunderstandings that occur when subsequent generations lose interest in the traditions. Tools of power and magical ingredients have their limits and impose penalties for transgressions.

While this is not a book about American branches of paganism, it does touch upon many themes crucial to a magical life-style and spiritual commitments. The tantalizing glimpse of these themes through the lens of a different culture underscores the questions and obstacles that arise in the lives of people dedicated to the Craft. As Tilo must weigh and decide how to respond to the questions facing her, the reader feels the echoes of similar questions and may gain new insights while pondering them.

This is a finely-crafted tale beautifully told and well worth reading.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Anchor Books, 1997
338 pg, $16.00