By Sita Brahmachari
Published by Macmillan Children's Books
ISBN 978 0 330 51791 1
You would expect something unusual from the latest winner of the prestigious Waterstone's Children's Book Prize in Britain, and you certainly get it in Sita Brahmachari's Artichoke Hearts.
This is the story of a 12-year-old girl's first steps into adult life. On the surface, the tale is quite ordinary and nothing to shout about, but the writer turns young Mira Levenson's first brushes with teenage angst into a very addictive read.
Artichoke Hearts isn't another example of the read-and-forget teen chick lit. Mira is an intelligent and observant narrator who makes us want to listen to what is going on as things change around her and Life with a capital L hits her full on.
Mira, like the author, lives in a multicultural Britain and is part English, part Indian. Her mother's family is from India and her father comes from northern England. Mira doesn't have any problems having one foot planted in each culture, and knows how to question and appreciate both parts of her heritage.
Nana Josie, Mira's paternal grandmother, is the strongest influence in the girl's changing life, and the portrait of this interesting character is the driving force behind the book. She gives Mira a silver charm in the shape of an artichoke heart, telling her that life is like an artichoke made up of many layers, all there to be peeled away. Mira has to learn what her grandma means.
Nana may be old in years, but she is still 16 in spirit. She is an artist and Mira has inherited her talent and love of colour. Now Nana is dying of cancer. She has to make the best of her time left with her favourite grandchild.
Nana's final artistic project is painting the coffin that will be her final resting place. She asks Mira to help with this ultimate artwork.
At school, Mira is active in a creative writing group organised by a visiting writer. This group of four very different students is the other point of interest that moves the story along.
Mira and her best friend Millie don't always get along with the two boys in the group, but as each one starts to write a journal, relationships begin to develop.
Artichoke Hearts is very much a teen girl's book, and although it is well written and challenging, it won't appeal to many male readers. But this possibility clearly didn't distract Brahmachari from writing a brilliant novel in an unsentimental voice.
Her writing is at its best when describing Nana's final days in hospital. A lesser writer would have slipped into maudlin mode and piled on the pathos, but Brahmachari's account leaves readers with a lasting emotional hit. Artichoke Hearts is about feelings, relationships and moving on. It is a worthy but limited-in-appeal prize winner.