A new book from Duckbill, that makes a great Christmas gift for your teenage cousin
It’s no secret that we are fans of Duckbill Books. We launched MBRB with an interview with the wonderful Anushka Ravishankar, a writer we frequently buy for our nieces and nephews, and we have also recommended Natasha’s delightful History Mysteries series in the past. So we were obviously thrilled to receive a copy of “Talking of Muskaan”, a new YA read by Himanjali Sankar to review.
Before we begin the review, a couple of caveats:
Of late, there has been a growing trend in YA literature of books that are covertly targeted towards adults who are in arrested adolescence themselves. And while we love our occasional dystopian trilogy, we are firm believers that YA books should be judged by their ability to appeal to their core segment, and not for any cross-over potential. Talking about Muskaan is clearly written for young readers, and that’s absolutely fine!
- When we received the proof from Duckbill, part of the copy mentioned that it is one of the first Indian YA books to address LGBT themes. Again, while that’s laudable, we’d much rather judge the book by its readability than on any life-lessons its imparts. For what it’s worth, we think that the book addresses gender and sexuality sensitively, and with all the sexual confusion and false confidence of a typical teenage experience.
Talking of Muskaan opens one morning when Muskaan’s closest friends are called in to the principal’s office, and told that she attempted to take her life the night before. The story then flits back to the past 5 months and we hear from three of her classmates: Aaliya, her best friend since childhood; Prateek, the poor-little-rich-boy ‘antagonist’ and Subhojoy, Muskaan’s newest friend.
What we liked
We love how the book covers the try-hardness of adolescence. Everyone – even the cool kids- are pretending to be someone else, posturing all the time, listening to Vampire Weekend and the Killers, and pretending to be older and wiser than they are. Those passages of the book which reflected upon these youthful traits took us right back to our own gawky 14 year old self and all the pain of that era. Himanjali also has a great eye for the inner dynamics of a group of young girls, and we greatly enjoyed their conversations!
Subhojoy: We found ourselves looking forward to every chapter from his point of view. What began as a stock character of sorts, grew into a wonderfully complex character with his own insecurities, beliefs and needs.
“Rich people believe in themselves. Poor people believe in fate. I am learning to believe in myself .”
Himanjali doesn’t dwell much upon the parents, but in a few deft strokes indicates how much each of them has influenced their children’s attitudes and personalities – from Prateek’s overbearing Tauji to Aaliya’s (presumably) cultured socialite mother. Those glimpses of the teens’ family lives helped in making the narrative so much richer.
What we wished was done better:
- The inner lives of Aaliya and Muskaan. We understand that children (and adults) put on guises all the time but we really wish we understood their motivations a little bit more. Especially Muskaan, who is a wonderfully drawn character- not embarrassed about her sexuality, and confident enough to be “different” in every way possible in the way most teenagers aren’t. And that’s why her decisions rings as a bit of a plot contrivance to us. As for Aaliya, all we really know about her is that she’s a smart alec obsessed with ballet. We wish we were made privy to some more of her inner life so that we could empathise with her.
Duckbill specialises in ‘adult’ writers who write for children without talking down to them, and Talking of Muskaan fits the bill. If you know a twelve year old, do consider buying her this book because she is guaranteed to see a bit of herself in that close-knit ‘girls’ group’ and in the petty traumas that make up your dramatic school years.
On another note, we loved the quotes from some of our favourite writers interspersed between the chapters, and if Himanjali ever decides to write a book for adults we’d be VERY interested to read more.