Prickly, unhappy, and bruised by the tragic deaths of her parents, Maria Latif is bustled off from Pakistan to Long Island, New York. After being bounced from relative to unfortunate relative, she is now going to stay with family friends. Still, the orphaned Maria knows this is just another temporary landing place.

When she arrives, Maria is prepared to hate New York, but there is a secret about the Clayborne House on Long Island that she doesn’t understand. Something about the way an unloved, untouched, and unclaimed garden hums and thrums makes Maria think that this bit of earth can be hers. With a garden gecko as her guide, she is determined to set down roots.

But then she meets Charlotte, a grumpy elderly woman, and her grandson Colin, who is unpleasant and whiny.

Written as a blend of prose and poetry, A Bit of Earth by Karuna Riazi is a touching story about a young girl’s ability to teach the adults in her life some important lessons. As Maria learns the story of Saira’s garden—how it lived and how it came to be locked up and off-limits—she also learns to see the garden as a welcoming place. “Like a mother’s lap” (207), the garden offers her a therapeutic nurturing place, a place to settle in. It is also a reminder of family, as her neighbors Mahajabeen (Mimi) and Rick Rehman join her in the garden, offering assistance and advice. Soon, Colin joins them.

Each young person brings a gift to the project: Maria’s vision and magic touch blend with Rick’s knack with animals and bugs, Mimi’s artistic talent, and Colin’s ability to play the violin. They also get advice from Dadima, who tells the children: “Plants spread their roots once they find the right patch of earth to welcome them. Flowers open their petals when they have enough energy and light to encourage them to. You will have the garden you want, but you have to prepare for it” (274).

That is just one of the creative metaphors that Riazi uses to reveal Maria’s wish to find her gift amid the tangles of anger, hurt, and grief that bind her heart. Although socializing is awkward and awful for her, in the garden, Maria “feels her mother’s gentle fingers weaving oil and warm, hushed bedtime stories into her hair. She can almost hear her father in his office, singing religious praises or proud freedom songs” (317).

When Lyndsay discovers that the children have been transforming the garden, she responds with anger, worried that her husband will erupt at the disruption to his own buried grief.

One of the novel’s strongest lessons comes to Lyndsay through Maria. Lyndsay claims, “I wish I could be more like you. . . . When you think someone’s treated you wrong, you hold them accountable. That’s the way it should be. . . . Sometimes I wonder what my life would have looked like if I hadn’t always thought I need to be nice. I’ve lost a lot of myself doing that” (245).

Riazi writes a poignant tale about the search for love and acceptance amid loss and loneliness.

  • Posted by Donna

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