I nearly didn't get past the front cover of this novel. It has to be the most stunning book cover of 2020, right? And, it's even more beautiful in the flesh. Even after finishing the story, I'm still staring at it.
I'm ashamed to say that Jasbinder Bilan's debut novel Asha and the Spirit Bird is still sitting on my TBR pile. However, after the opening of this novel was published on the Chicken House website, I knew I wanted to dive straight into this one. And, trust me when I say that the story inside is as beautiful as the cover.
Tamarind hopes that visiting her ancestral home in India will lead to answers about who her mother, Chinty, really was. But when she arrives, Chinty is shrouded in lost and hidden memories that no one will talk about. As Tamarind steps into a magical garden, she is guided towards a secret presence- a mysterious girl called Ishta. But who exactly is Ishta and why does she keep disappearing? In order to find the truth, Tamarind must follow a golden monkey, a glowing ring and unlock the hearts of her loved ones.
This is a beautifully told story about grief, family tensions and hope that is laced with magic. It is set against the breath-taking wilderness of the Himalaya and is full of vivid imagery which brings every sense to life. It combines everyday family reality with the extraordinary - emeralds and stars, legends and spirits. It sears through the pain of grief and explores the raw emotions we feel when we lose a loved one and wish to remain close to them.
Tamarind is a fabulous character, full of questions and depth. Her desire to uncover the truth and identity of her mother overrides her nervousness at being left with family she's never met and makes her strong and fierce. Her difficulties with fitting in and adjusting to new foods is relatable and heart-warming and the book's other characters compliment her perfectly; Arjun allowing her to be soft and vulnerable and the shockingly aggressive Sufia bringing out the tiger within.
Actually, Sufia and Nani are both great characters in their own right. Both show the complexities and deep impact that grief can have on an extended family. It reminded me very much of a similar, but less magical story, I read recently. Bauble, Me and the Family Tree by Jenny Moore, is also a story which explores the lasting effects of losing a family member. Set firmly in the UK, it reminded me that whatever country or culture we may belong to, families experience the same struggles all over the world and it's unity which essentially sees us through.
The story and the setting are truly intoxicating. This is not a fast, dynamic read but a magical and enthralling meander through a garden and wilderness thronging with personal and mythical history. It's shorter length is perfect for a cosy, weekend read and it left me itching to read Asha and the Spirit Bird.
*The Waterstones Exclusive offers an extra short story at the back of the book.