It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.
Jasbinder Bilan. Asha & The Spirit Bird. Frome: Chicken House. 2019
On Wednesday, I broke my book buying ban after hearing Sunny Singh talk about the Jhalak Prize runs behind the scenes. I have been following the prize since it was founded and always try to read as many of the books nominated as I can. As libraries are out for the time being, I wrote to my local independent bookshop who are selling off their in-store stock and purchased three of this year’s nominees, which I hope will make it to the blog in due course. (For other people reading the noms, I devoured The Black Flamingo and Queenie in 2019.)
Asha & the Spirit Bird is a beautiful story about two children who stowaway to find Asha’s father who has gone missing in a distant city. I was really drawn to its beautiful cover designed by Helen Crawford-White and I kept seeing the tiger on the front as the animal was mentioned at different points in the story. If you, or any people you love, value the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, then I would thoroughly recommend this story because it is an children’s adventure story with some magic and mysticism that will appeal to people of all ages. Although there is peril and intrigue, there are also so many intricate details and ways of marking love and devotion. I loved how Bilan developed Asha packing a mango for her first meal away into the children sharing it slightly later in the plot, and then nurturing the stone to grow a new plant. Gorgeous.
The progress of Asha and Jeevan’s journey continued to surprise me. Bilan doesn’t skirt around “tough” subjects but she also reminds us about the value of friendship, courage, and trusting in the things that matter to you. Bilan also represents spirituality and magic in an arresting and powerful way. Moments of mystery and acts of faith are repeatedly noted by observing characters. Somehow, they seem more transformative and fleeting through this perspective. It’s really touching and beautiful.
Although I read it quickly, and I will definitely by this for the children in my life, Asha was a hard book to read right now. It made my heart hurt. It made me notice how much I miss my family and friends. It made me want to get on a train to London and cook my parents a stir-fry and talk nonsense about the state of the world. I discovered during the two hours I was reading that the beloved soul singer Bill Withers had sadly died. Bilan uses song and aural history and memory to structure parts of the story and this took me back to discovering soul and Motown as I got into listening music when I was small.
As I continued reading, I put my favourite Withers album on: Just As I Am (1971). (I normally read with rain noise on because it’s my favourite sound.) I am a monster, and I only listen to albums on shuffle and somehow, Spotify serendipitously lined up my favourite track “In My Heart” as I was getting towards the end of the book. It felt like my own lamagaia (a bearded vulture) had come to sit with me, as it does with Asha at the beginning of the story. When I finished reading, I propped the book against the lamp by my bed. I bought the lamp with money from my first taxable pay not so very long ago. It’s made of cardboard covered in dusty purple canvas and the fabric is printed with startled tigers (my spirit animal too). Hopefully, they will keep me company this evening.