Andal’s Garland (Odyssey Books 2020) by Helen Burns is an immersive experience of Indian life, culture and history. The book simultaneously intertwines two stories: the life of the young girl Andal, an eighth century Tamil poet; and a contemporary Australian woman who becomes obsessed with Andal’s poetry and uses her verses as a talisman to determine the path her life should take. Andal is the only female of the 12 Alvar saints of South India and composed love songs to gods which are still sung in Indian temples today.

The first strand of this story is the history and legends surrounding Andal’s creation, her early home life and her ascension to status as a renowned poetess. Her relationship with her father Vishnucitta, the societal constructs she confronts, and her ambitions as a writer and poet are explored in great depth and are informed by obviously meticulously detailed historical research.

The interwoven strand is of a contemporary Australian woman who finds and purchases a second-hand copy of Andal’s poetry, ‘For the Love of God’, at the Indian markets. It quickly becomes her talisman and her guide to seeking the meaning of life. She has made many trips to India with her long-term partner over 25 years, but the point arrives when she feels she must journey there alone to fully comprehend Andal’s words, to travel to the places Andal once lived, and to uncover more about this woman who has so affected her life.

Both of these narratives provide the reader with an immersive experience of the rich and sensual magic of India, a country that is at once overwhelming, unpredictable and full of wonder. This is a real search for enlightenment story that includes tantra, yoga, chakras, gurus and the path from base desires to spiritual awareness. The physical conditions in India – poverty, a lack of hygiene, irritating customs, overcrowding, beggars, discomfort, heat – are ever-present and fatiguing. But to balance this are the thousands of years of culture, spiritual guidance and awakening, the soothing mediations of Hinduism, the many and varied gods, and the gentle and welcoming aspect of the people, even to foreigners.

As we follow the journey of this one woman and her devotion and connection to Andal, the poet girl, we are exposed to myths and legends, and to her actual Tamil poetry, which begins each chapter. She makes this pilgrimage as a way to find herself or to uncover the meaning of her life, which has been complicated by a complex long-term relationship with a man dedicated to celibacy, the sorrow of infertility, and the regret of past behaviours. She meets Vasur, who changes her world view. It is a novel about unrequited love – whether that be of man or of god. The pull of the poet is difficult to explain and hard to ignore, and the lovely combination of the retelling of the lives of both women connect them despite living centuries apart.

The sounds, sights and smells of India are recreated in beautiful and descriptive writing, which includes some very sensual – and sexual – scenes. The book details much information on culture, festivals and celebrations. Some of this information is dense, heavy or a little overwritten, so that the plot itself becomes less obvious – and perhaps less important – than the significance placed on setting, environment, place and time. The author has clearly undertaken a lot of research in this area and she faithfully wants to record everything she knows. I acknowledge that the sections written about Andal’s life slip dangerously close to appropriation, and that will possibly be a criticism by some readers, but the author’s extensive academic research and personal experience reassures me that she has respectfully reproduced the ancient parts of the story, with the modern sections feeling somewhat autobiographical. Ultimately, this is fictional tale based on ancient stories, a search for meaning in a changing world, a story about the importance of beauty, art and poetry, and a love song to the country of India and all its glorious strangeness and exotic complexity. This story will resonate with readers who love and devour stories set in India (you know who you are!)