Friday, 18 February 2011

Artichoke Hearts, Sita Brahmachari

Mira Levenson has just turned twelve and her world is becoming a strange and unrecogniseable place. Her Nana Josie, always so artistic, passionate and full of life, is dying; she can't stop thinking about Jidé Jackson, whose confident, joky manner hides a tragic history and a sensitive soul. Mira is changing. Sometimes she catches her mouth saying what she didn't intend to say, speaking out when she's always been so shy, or alternatively keeping secrets to herself. Nothing particularly drastic, she just doesn't feel like sharing everything with everybody.

There are a lot of books for teenagers that deal with the aftermath of the death of a loved one. Artichoke Hearts actually seemed to be targetted at the younger end of the Young Adult range (11+) but is unusual in exploring a terminal illness, and the feelings of helplessness of those who can only watch as a relative approaches death, and Brahmachari writes this with simplicity but a great deal of maturity. Nana Josie is early on established as a vivacious, artistic woman, a former hippy and passionate protester. Early on, there is a moment of dark, uncomfortable humour, as she embarks on her big artistic project: to paint her own coffin. It is heartbreaking to watch such a lively person fade.

The artichoke of the title refer to a charm given to Mira by Nana Josie, a symbol of the human heart, and how with age and experience, a heart which may seem to break grows tough layers to protect it, like the layers of an artichoke. The novel is a sweet, beautiful coming-of-age story, showing a child starting to learn who she is. Mira is a quiet girl, artistic and thoughtful, but through the sadness of seeing her grandmother die, the strangeness of early adolescence and the sweetness of a first romance, she grows in confidence and self-awareness. The characters are all very-well rounded individuals, and I think that Jidé Jackson is one of the loveliest boyfriends I've encountered in a kids' or teen book for a long time - and he's only twelve.

Read for the Support Your Local
Library Challenge 2011
One way that Mira grows in her understanding is in her extracurricular creative writing class, which is led by writer Miss Pat Print, and consists of herself, her best friend Millie, Jidé and his friend Ben Gbemi.  In the classes, Miss Print (an unfortunate name for a writer!) helps the children to understand themselves and their world through writing. The novel is written as being Mira's diary, in the present tense which itself is highlighted early on as helping reader and writer feel the immediacy of the narrative. On occasion, after a short writing exercise, the children start to feel empathy for others in a way that they hadn't before. I found these writing sessions fascinating, and they summed up what is, to me, why literature is so important: Fiction (or poetry, theatre, film, TV) helps to make sense of the world and cultivates understanding of other people.

Artichoke Hearts is a pensive, sometimes sad read, but ultimately it left me feeling uplifted, a celebration of life, youth, a loving family and good friends. I would recommend it for Judy Blume fans and older readers of Jacqueline Wilson, who are maybe looking for something a bit more grown-up. So far, Artichoke Hearts has quietly slipped onto the bookshop shelves with little fanfare, but it deserves to be widely read and talked about.

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