Mitali Perkins has a gift for creating three-dimensional characters, especially girls who aren't perfect, but who want to do the right thing. She also has a gift for making both settings and interpersonal dynamics feel real. She does all of these things brilliantly in Secret Keeper.
Secret Keeper is about a girl named Asha, second daughter of a Bengali family in the mid 1970's. The story begins as Asha and her sister Reet are on their way, with their depressed mother, to live with their father's family in Calcutta. Asha's father is on his way to America to look for work, with the hope of bringing the family over once he finds success as an engineer. In the meantime, however, Asha faces a confined existence at her grandmother's house, unable to go to school, and scarcely able to even leave the house. Her only escape is her diary, in which she addresses entries to "Secret Keeper." Although she has a strong spirit and a quick mind, Asha struggles to keep her promise to take care of her mother and sister.
Although Asha's environment is quite restricted, it feels like there's a lot happening in Secret Keeper. I read it two quick sittings, eager to know what would happen next. I could practically smell and taste Calcutta in the 1970's, and I loved the characters, especially Asha. Here are a couple of passages to give you a feel for Mitali's writing, and for Asha:
"Coconut and banana trees blocked the sunshine on every side except the front, the windows on the first floor were secured with bars, and the property was completely fenced in. As they waited by their bags, Asha couldn't help feeling she was about to serve a sentence for a crime she hadn't committed." (Page 22)
"If Asha had to choose one word in the Bangla language to abolish, it would be "eesh." That single syllable, pronounced with just the right intonation, brought with it a twist of shame and loss and disappointment that Asha could never fully fend off. Ma, Grandmother, and Auntie wielded it like a knife." (Page 43)
Also, the full quote is a bit long to share, but when Asha reads fairy tales aloud to her young cousins, she replaces all of the references to how beautiful the princess are, talking instead of how "noble, smart, generous, and brave" they are. See why I love her? I also fell a little bit in love with Asha's cousin, Raj (Sarah Rettger feels that way, too), and even found that I liked her initially aloof uncle. I grew to respect her strict grandmother. I was able to empathize with both the restrictions placed on the women in the book and the pressures to produce felt by the men.
And yet, I'm having a hard time reviewing this book, because I found the ending hard to take. Inevitable, perhaps. The right ending for the characters under the circumstances of the book. Absolutely. But ... still hard to take. I think it's a mark of how much I liked the characters that I wanted everything to work out perfectly for them. But this is not that sort of book. Things are resolved. Brave and selfless actions are undertaken. But there are no miracles. Things are only resolved within the particular constraints of Belgali society in India during the economic recession of the 1970's. And that means that everyone can't have everything. Choices must be made.
I'm going to have to conclude that Secret Keeper is brilliant, though, because, 24 hours after finishing the book, I'm still sad about some of the things that happened. I wonder how the characters are going to manage. I'm working on sequels in my head. It doesn't matter that Asha and Reet and Raj and Jay and the others are fictional. It doesn't matter that their story takes place during my elementary school years, in a country I've never visited, filled with cultural traditions different from my own. I feel like these events happened yesterday to friends of mine. I feel like I've spent time in that house in Calcutta with the fence around it. I pine for things that did happen, and for things that didn't. And that makes Secret Keeper something special. It's well worth your time.
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: January 13, 2009
Source of Book: Bought it at a recent signing at Not Your Mother's Book Club
Other Blog Reviews: Semicolon and Archimedes Forgets. See also the book trailer at Readergirlz.
Author Interviews: Books 140, MotherReader, Kabiliana
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.