Twelve-year-old Mira comes from a chaotic, artistic and outspoken family where it’s not always easy to be heard. As her beloved Nana Josie’s health declines, Mira begins to discover the secrets of those around her, and also starts to keep some of her own. She is drawn to mysterious Jidé, a boy who is clearly hiding a troubled past and has grown hardened layers – like those of an artichoke – around his heart. As Mira is experiencing grief for the first time, she is also discovering the wondrous and often mystical world around her.
I wasn’t too sure this book would be a good fit for me precisely because it appears to fit a very particular genre mould – that of the young adult (tween in this case) coming of age in some way, shape or form. While the book gets off to a slow start, quite soon I was engrossed in the story of Mira, a twelve-year-old girl living in London with her family. Brahmachari, who was inspired by her own daughter, writes a beautiful, honest portrayal of a girl going through waves of change. Mira has to confront first love alongside the terminal illness of her artist grandmother and the quirky way in which Nana Josie chooses to live out what remains of her life. She also witnesses her own body changing as a metaphor for her shifting relationships to her siblings and parents, her best friend Millie, and an interesting new sort-of teacher, the mysterious Pat Print.
It is Brahmachari’s writing that elevates the simple story of one girl to an account of real and often unpredictable life. As a ‘grown-up’ I found myself looking back on my own teen years and how difficult they were. Mira’s experience captures this complexity, newness and uncertainty with impressive deftness, while sensitively introducing deep themes of loss and spirituality. I was amused by small details of her personality, such as her tendency to make deals with ‘Notsurewho Notsurewhat’ (known as God, Allah PBUH, and many more) and her growing anxieties around texting her new crush. Thank Notsurewho Notsurewhat I’m not the only one! I thought. But also, am I really still a tween at heart?
Mira’s relationship with her grandmother is also something that many readers would find comforting. Nana Josie is a whole person who has lived a full and exciting life; who bans black from her funeral and paints herself a coffin with a picture of a dog peeing in the sea. I resonated quite deeply with Nana Josie, and in fact had to stop reading for a few days because of the range of feelings she inspired in me.
Even her love interest, Jidé, comes with a story of his own – one that is painful but handled with incredible tact. Brahmachari confronts the often silenced histories of immigrant children in spaces such as London, dealing with the challenges of race, ethnicity and adoption while never rendering Jidé an add-on or a trope. His relationship with Mira provides much of the humour and excitement of the book. My neighbours can confirm hearing me screaming, ‘YAAAAAASSSSS GIRL YAAAAAASSSSS!’ several times in the course of finishing it!
Artichoke Hearts comes highly recommended by this cynic. If I had had this book as a younger version of myself it would have been right there on the shelf with Adrian Mole, Spud, and Harry Potter, and in fact is something I’d like my own tween brother to read. It is wonderful to find texts that give girl protagonists the respect they deserve. While Adrian Mole and Spud were allowed to be their awkward, man-boy selves, it is rare to find a girl protagonist given the same treatment and not reduced to make-up, boys and external anxieties. Mira is a girl of mixed parentage who writes and does art, who doesn’t feel pretty but is considered to be so, who is bullied but learns to forgive her bullies not because she is something special but because she knows what it feels like to be lonely or unliked. And it is in her nothing-special that Mira is a wonderful character at the centre of a magnificent story – one that gets to the core of what it means, and costs, to truly grow up.
Thanks, Pan Macmillan South Africa for sending us a copy in exchange for an honest review.
I’m 24 and a misanthropic writer (aren’t they always?). By day I work as an education researcher while I do my PhD. In my private world I love sci-fi, steampunk and a healthy dose of the macabre. I definitely know way too much about committing the perfect crime.