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When Secrets Set Sail

Sita Brahmachari

(Hachette UK, 2021)

Review by Dr Roopa Farooki


First, a confession: I had never read Sita Brahmachari. Despite her numerous plaudits and nominations, including winning the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. It’s possible her work was just made less visible to me in the bookshops, where names in the children’s section shout loud like brands in a boutique. So, when I was asked to review her latest book, her twelfth in a distinguished career, I was delighted. A book about a bickering pair of South Asian eleven-year-olds (I have two of those at home), a book set in East London (I used to live there, and walk along the canals), a book with a fiery grandmother (my children have one of those, too!), and steeped in a history of the forgotten workers of the subcontinent in the UK, with reference to the first female Asian NHS doctors, this book could have been written for me. And then I felt nervous, afraid that I was already too close to this book; would I be able to do it justice?

I realised, quickly, that this fear was unfounded. This is not just a book for me, but for every child who has ever wondered about their past, who has ever tried to make something right. Imtiaz is brittle and defensive when adopted into Usha’s family; Usha is guilty about her sullen lack of welcome, forced to share her room, her parents and, astonishingly, her ghosts, with this invader. They learn to work together, to settle the ghosts of the recent and long past, to solve the long-standing mystery that has prevented them from moving on and finding peace – a detective trail that has them uncovering the injustice towards the Ayahs who were abandoned, the racism in post-war Britain, the othering of the Roma community, the pettiness of local government. The girls grow stronger together, discover their own hidden courage, reveal their fragilities, and become sisters.

This is a story full of heart, which was always going to have a happy ending, but it is unique in drawing its antagonism from the wrongs of a colonial past. There is no contemporary bad guy here, only a supportive community of family, friends, librarians and academics who help the girls in their quest. The true villain is the racism faced by a sisterhood of women who have been wronged, personified by an unsmiling, cruel Matron and by wealthy relatives keen to whitewash the Indian out of their Anglo-Indian niece. As such, this story does not wear its history lesson lightly; the wrongs of the past provide weight to the plot and, in a refreshing twist, it is the young who can expiate those wrongs. In fiction, and especially in the hopeful place of fiction for children, we can put right what once went wrong. We have that power.

This is a grown-up story for children, full of lyricism, history, redemption, with a song at its heart and, as a symbol of freedom, the ship as its leitmotif. This is one of those stories which should be shared, in schools and communities, to give hope that the young will indeed redeem us all.