I was so excited to receive a copy of this book to review; it was a perfect book to read for South Asian Heritage Month, as it delves into a history that many of us know nothing about.
Imtiaz has been adopted by the Joseph family, who live in an interesting house consisting of a community hub for refugees on the ground floor called the Hearth, and a whimsical home on the 'Top Deck', designed like a ship. She isn’t sure what to make of her new sister, Usha, who seems distracted and withdrawn after the death of her grandmother, Kali Ma. But when their Hearth and home are threatened by locals who don’t want refugees in the area, the two girls are drawn into a journey to uncover the hidden history of the house - and of the ayahs of long ago who once took refuge there.
In this middle-grade historical mystery with a sprinkling of the supernatural, Sita Brahmachari takes you on a wonderful odyssey of secrets, unravelling mysteries of the past and bringing forgotten histories to light. Before I read this book I had no idea that ayahs – Indian nannies employed to look after British children - were often abandoned by the families of their charges, once they reached Britain. Learning about them through this book even inspired me to go and do some more research of my own, so I was extremely thankful for the list of excellent sources included at the end.
It’s a story of grief, loss, and searching for a place to belong. I particularly loved the subtle way Brahmachari links xenophobic attitudes towards different groups of people, referring to historic attitudes towards Indians and Romany people, and the recent policies towards the Windrush generation and asylum seekers.
I found the beginning of the book a little confusing in trying to keep track of everyone’s relationships to each other, but soon found myself immersed in the girls’ quest to find out the truth. It was lovely to see Usha and Imtiaz’s relationship develop from tension and ambivalence to understanding and friendship. And wonderful to see multicultural/multi-ethnic families portrayed in children’s books as an everyday fact.
I found it striking that although the girls give the ayahs a voice we never actually hear any of them speak. Kali Ma’s ghost is always chattering which makes her seem larger than life, but Lucky and the other ayahs never utter a word, making them seem a step removed and somehow more ghostly. I understand this may have been reflective of how they are effectively silent in historical records and to allow the space for Imtiaz and Usha to discover their stories – but I would have liked to have heard Lucky find her own voice and tell at least part of her own story directly.
The story builds up to a compelling climax and a satisfying resolution, with a complex mystery at its heart. The descriptions of the ship-house are delightful and the various visual motifs running through the narrative help to draw the different threads together. This is a beautifully-conceived tale, steeped in history and emotion, and a fantastic resource for a decolonised curriculum.
Suitable for age 9+.
Thanks to @netgalley for this free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Brown Brontë rating: 4 stars