The Rooftop Garden

Image of The Rooftop Garden
Release Date: 
April 11, 2023
Nightwood Editions
Reviewed by: 

The Rooftop Garden adroitly weaves the themes of friendship, responsibility, and climate change into an unlikely thriller.”

As third-grade playmates in Toronto, Nabila and Matthew had pretended that the garden on the roof of Nabila’s apartment building was the only safe spot in a world flooded by climate change. They made imaginary meals with dirt and leaves, and debated which animals might survive.

Almost two decades later, Matthew is caught up in a far more dangerous fantasy—recruited into an undefined terrorist organization—but this time, he doesn’t have Nabila to help him.

In three alternating narratives—Nabila’s viewpoint in the past, and Matthew’s and Nabila’s voices in the present—The Rooftop Garden adroitly weaves the themes of friendship, responsibility, and climate change into an unlikely thriller.

Waiting anxiously in Berlin for word from Matthew, who has mysteriously gone silent, Nabila recalls times in her childhood when she and her mother watched TV reports “that would talk about the warming Arctic and radiation, oil spills, tiny plastic particles that were filling the ocean . . . [with] the same feeling of urgency and helplessness that was now pulsing within her.”

Nabila’s attitude toward Matthew has always toggled from bossing him around, to tolerating him, to worrying about him, to being annoyed with him, to shunning him, to feeling guilty about her annoyance and shunning. For his part, Matthew, who suffers from mental disability, has always followed Nabila’s lead and adored her.

Their paths diverged after third grade. In the book’s current-day sections, Nabila has turned her childhood environmental passion into a career studying how seaweed adapts to warming oceans, while Matthew works in a fast-food joint. One day, Matthew “showed up unannounced at her lab wearing a sweater that was too small,” to inform Nabila that he has a group of new friends who think he should move to another country. He asks, repeatedly, “What should I do?”

But Nabila is busy, and his neediness is becoming cloying. She brushes off his questions.

What neither Nabila nor Matthew realize is that Matthew’s new “friends” have decided to send him to Germany for paramilitary training. “They were remaking the world the way it should be,” they tell him.

When Matthew’s texts start to hint that he’s unhappy and feels trapped, Nabila guiltily decides that she needs to go to Berlin and help him escape.

The first half of this debut novel is slower and more pensive. Then it abruptly turns into a page-turner, as Nabila tries to track down Matthew before he can do any damage.

The childhood scenes could easily have become saccharine, but author Menaka Raman-Wilms, a veteran journalist based in Toronto, handles them with just the right touch. Nabila’s genuine enthusiasm for environmental causes and slightly off-kilter information alternate with her confused feelings toward Matthew and his own sweet naivete. 

However, the timeline for the present-day chapters becomes confusing. It takes a while to realize that the chapters narrated by the adult Nabila in Berlin are actually taking place a few months after the adult-Matthew chapters in Canada, not simultaneously. (Chapter headings with months and years could have solved this problem.) Another flaw is that Matthew’s sadistic terrorist companions are somewhat cartoon-type villains.

Still, those are minor criticisms in an original, complex, and beautifully woven story.

In addition to friendship and climate change, past and present in this book are also connected through the theme of trees. The rooftop garden is dominated by two sandbar willow trees; the apartment where Nabila stays in Berlin is built around a century-old tree; and in his terrorism training, Matthew is troubled that their target practice involves shooting at trees. Touching the bullet markings on one tree, he “felt like he should say sorry to the tree, then felt stupid.”