I was really excited for Jasbinder Bilan’s second book after loving Asha and the Spirit Bird (review here), and I think I maybe ended up loving Tamarind and the Star of Ishta even more!
Book: Tamarind and the Star of Ishta by Jasbinder Bilan
Read before: No
Publication date: 3rd September 2020
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Chicken House. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Death of a parent/family member and dealing with grief is a main plot line.
Tamarind and the Star of Ishta is a book of quiet, emotional magic that deftly explores family, grief, and love. Tamarind’s mum, Chinty, died shortly after she was born, and her dad won’t talk about her, so when Tamarind is sent to visit her mum’s family in the Himalayas, she’s determined to finally get some answers about the mother she never knew. It turns out that no-one there will talk about Chinty, either, and Tamarind is forced to do some digging herself, even as she tries to get on with a household full of strange food and secrets. When she hears a young girl calling her name at night, Tamarind discovers a secret garden and a new playmate, Ishta, who may well hold the key to the answers she’s been seeking.
As with Asha and the Spirit Bird, this is a book which sits on the line between real life and magic. Tamarind’s visit is suffused with magic, but never in a flashy way – there’s an exciting mystery to be solved, and plenty of hints of actual magic, but also a really solid grounding in the day to day life of the family, which Tamarind has to fit in with. Meeting a whole set of family for the first time is nerve-wracking enough without it being a wholly different culture to the one you’ve been raised in, and Tamarind’s anxieties are well-expressed through her nervousness around food. She’s a picky eater at home in England, so she’s filled with trepidation about having to live off spicy Indian cuisine – I loved that this showed her diverting her general worries, which are too big to handle, into something small and specific that she could control. This leads to a wonderful underlying theme of the book, where Tamarind slowly becomes comfortable with both the food, and her family, through gentle and respectful testing of boundaries on both sides. Set against these real-life concerns is the more adventurous side of the book, with Tamarind meeting the mysterious Ishta and her pet monkey – to say too much about this side of things would be spoilery, but it’s compelling reading.
As with Asha, the story plays with the idea of your loved ones continuing to be important even after they’ve passed away, which is treated sensitively and in a way that makes it clear that love is what matters, regardless of the situation. Tamarind’s adventures help to give her some answers, but they also help to heal her whole family, as she breaks down the walls that they have put up to avoid dealing with their grief about Chinty. This is a book which I think will read very differently to adults and children, and part of that will be down to your own sensitivity level. Its depiction of grief is achingly beautiful and well-described in all its facets, from Sufia’s fury at her aunt leaving her, to Nani’s more mature resignation at losing her daughter, to Tamarind’s swirling mix of fear and sadness and nonchalance and curiosity about her unknown mother. The scene that had me in floods of tears (Nani describing Chinty’s plans and dreams for Tamarind while pregnant) will probably not hit a child in the same way that it hit me, someone who has recently had a baby, for example; but whatever your experience of grief, I think there will be a character in this book who feels true to that. It’s beautifully observed.
This is an utterly gorgeous read – I didn’t expect anything less, after Asha, but I couldn’t have predicted how heartwrenchingly lovely this is. It’s definitely a book that you would need to gauge a young reader’s sensitivity to before giving it to them, but it’s one that every school librarian should have on hand to use in discussions of grief, and it’s well worth a few tissues to enjoy the beauty of it. It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but it really is one of those books that will stick with you for a long time after you close it! It’s stunning – five out of five cats.