The Rooftop Garden by Menaka Raman-Wilms

The Rooftop Garden by Menaka Raman-Wilms is not a book I would normally pick up, but the plot intrigued me. The idea someone could be seduced into doing something out of character was an idea I wanted to explore. The novel promised to be a story of a young man or woman who’s easily indoctrinated to go against their family values or the values of the society they’ve been raised in.  

And here, the author doesn’t disappoint. What I had hoped for, I got. Though the story of The Rooftop Garden is fictional, I’m reminded of something Salman Rushdie once said, “novels tell the truth.”   

Though the story of The Rooftop Garden is fictional, I’m reminded of something Salman Rushdie once said, “novels tell the truth.” 

At the beginning of this exceptional debut novel, the author introduces us to two children, Nabila and Matthew, in the middle of one of their play dates. They get together frequently to play ‘what if’ games in the rooftop garden of the Vancouver apartment building where Nabila and her family live. The story goes back and forth in time, showing us more of their imaginative play as children and then later when they encounter one another as teens and adults, both in their home city and later in Berlin. They are an unlikely pair. Nabila becomes a brilliant research scientist, and Matthew, a mentally and emotionally challenged young man, still searching for some meaning in his life.  

Through their daily work, the author shows us once more how markedly different Nabila and Matthew are by the roads they’ve travelled. We learn this through the characters’ dialogue and behaviour; we learn how nature and nurture shape us all. The young girl has love from her family, intelligence, and social insight. In sharp contrast, the boy grows up, deprived by both nature and nurture, often left to fend for himself. These are forces he has little control over. When they are children, the girl tries to explain the workings of the world and the impact of climate change on our earth to the boy. He has his own fears and his own interpretations. We absorb how facts can be viewed differently depending on our own abilities to make sense of the world around us.  

Each character portrayed is authentic and believable, even the supporting characters. For example, Nabila demonstrates her sensitivity to her friend’s plight, but there are times when she doesn’t. In fact, she can be cruel. The unreliability of her behaviour, especially towards her friend, is a trait that is sadly too common, even in the best of us.  

Through these complex character portrayals, the author deftly demonstrates how vulnerable we all are, despite what we’ve been given in life. Even Nabila, who’s had the privilege of growing up in a loving family. She makes mistakes. She messes up, like her friend, who was given so much less.  

The other story accompanying the larger journey of the two main characters is the concern about our planet, and how it’s under threat of extinction. Because it’s fiction, our climate emergency hits home in a different way. I love the way Menaka Raman-Wilms introduces this grave topic. She does it through the children’s play-acting, and later through Nabila’s work in a lab. Two children in a roof garden use their imagination to play out various outcomes of weather disturbances and climate calamities. I plan to read these sections again.  

As I neared the end of the novel, I began to question how the author would tie up the loose ends. The action quickens and contains the elements of a good thriller. The characters appear to be heading for disaster. I was uneasy as I approached the climax, which is a good sign of well-written suspense. I won’t give away any of the endings, only to say I was satisfied as a reader.  

Menaka Raman-Wilms is a writer and journalist based in Toronto. She’s the host of The Decibel, the daily news podcast from The Globe and Mail. Previously, she was a parliamentary reporter for The Globe and Mail and an associate producer at CBC Radio One. Her work has also been published in Broken Pencil Magazine and Acta Victoriana.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Nightwood Editions (Oct. 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 208 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 088971438X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0889714380

 -- Website

Diana Stevan likes to joke she’s a Jill of all trades as she’s worked as a family therapist, teacher, librarian, model, actress and sports reporter for CBC television. She’s the author of five novels and a novelette.

Her novels cross genres: A Cry from the Deep, a romantic mystery/adventure; The Rubber Fence, women’s fiction; and Lukia’s Family Saga series, historical/biographical fiction. Based on her Ukrainian grandmother's family’s life in Russia and in Canada, the series is a trilogy covering the years 1915-1943: Sunflowers Under Fire, Lilacs in the Dust Bowl, and Paper Roses on Stony Mountain.

When Diana isn’t writing, she loves to garden, travel, and read. With their two daughters grown, she lives with her husband Robert on Vancouver Island and West Vancouver, British Columbia.