Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
This first novel by Globe and Mail journalist Menaka Raman-Wilms starts with a brief flashback of two friends, Nabila and Matthew, playing a childhood game on the rooftop garden of an apartment building. The two have created a fantasy world, pretending they are the last people on earth living in a post-climate-catastrophe age where the ocean levels have risen to surround their apartment building. In their play, they marvel at the marine life around them and tend to their make-believe garden, preparing imaginary meals out of flowers, dirt, and sticks.
The book then jumps to present-day Berlin, where Nabila has arrived to search for Matthew, who, after contacting her in Canada, has now gone missing. Teaming up with her landlady, Tierney, a British woman who owns an English-language bookshop, Nabila roams the streets of Berlin and hopes Matthew will eventually contact her.
In their childhood games, Nabila had always taken the lead. She was the smart one who came from a family of professionals. Her mother, a scientist, had taught her the facts and effects of climate change. Nabila passed these on to Matthew during their play. Matthew came from a modest background. His single mother worked late, and his two older sisters mostly raised him. At school, he was a poor student and bullied by his classmates. So, while Nabila was confident and chatty, Matthew was quiet and passive. For him, their game was a place of refuge from a difficult and unrewarding life. But their playing together only lasted for grade three, after which they seldom saw each other, despite attending the same school.
Years later, in their twenties, they meet by chance. Nabila is now a research scientist studying kelp. Matthew is a short-order cook. They meet a few times and exchange text messages regularly. One day, he comes to her lab to tell her he is “supposed to leave” and asks if she would mind if he did. Distracted by her work, Nabila says no, she wouldn’t mind. Matthew leaves the lab and disappears. Nabila and Matthew are neither lovers nor even close friends in the normal sense of that term. What binds them is the time spent together in their childhood fantasy world.
Some weeks after his disappearance, they reconnect by text, but all Nabila learns is that he is somewhere a few hours from Berlin and cannot leave where he is. Worried about him, Nabila flies to Berlin.
The book could have taken on a thriller-like aspect, as Nabila explores off-the-beaten-track areas of Berlin and Matthew agonizes about the terrible situation he has gotten himself into. But, instead of letting fast-paced action take over, Raman-Wilms puts the reader inside the heads of Nabila and Matthew, as they each reflect on what they mean to each other. The narrative relates their emotional give-and-take—the doubts, the confusion, the second-guessing of each other’s friendship.
Mostly it is Nabila whose mind the reader inhabits. Being a scientist, she is questioning and analytical. Matthew has simpler thoughts, though no less profound for him. He has tried to free himself of the bonds of his passivity—always accepting what the world throws at him—but is now uneasy about the choices he has made in that effort. Small, vivid details give added dimension to their thinking.
This is the great achievement of the book. Unlike many authors, Raman-Wilms does not simply step back as a narrator to create an “objective” reality. Instead, she opts to show how our worlds are made up only of perceptions of the people and places around us. For Nabila and Matthew, their present reality, as with their childhood rooftop garden, is in their minds.
The Rooftop Garden is a poignant work that superbly evokes the confused and complex emotions of friendship. A very impressive debut!
The Rooftop Garden is published by Harbour Publishing.