Emma Smith-Barton, The Million Pieces of Neena Gill, Penguin Books, July 2019, 320 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN
The Million Pieces of Neena Gill is a debut novel by Emma Smith-Barton. It’s an exciting addition to YA #OwnVoices novels — with both the main character, Neena, and Smith-Barton herself having been born to Pakistani parents in the UK.
This book has much in common with other books and films that explore south Asian migrants’ children’s struggles with identity and belonging. The setting and some themes feel familiar from the outset. There’s lots of affectionate attention given to details like clothing and food, and tension builds because of the cultural differences Neena has to navigate. But it’s about more than cultural identity.
Neena’s life is a perfect storm. There’s the normal teenage stuff like angst about family, friends, love, and the pressures of school. Then there’s the intense grief and confusion she feels about the loss of her older and much-adored brother, Akash. She’s got the stress and turmoil of trying to carve out her own identity and relationships from under the combined weight of her parents’ grief and cultural expectations. And, to top it all off, her mental health is unravelling.
I found the book to be quite a page turner. At the start it feels driven by mystery and romance. What happened to Neena’s older brother, Akash? How can she pursue a relationship with Josh without upsetting her parents? But a sense of foreboding and intensity soon develops. It becomes clear that Neena is an unreliable narrator — that you are privy to a young woman’s disconcerting descent into psychosis. Whilst you empathise with Neena and want her problems to be resolved, you also want to know what the story is from another point of view.
There were a couple of times I struggled with this book. At one stage I worried the story was misrepresenting mental illness in a kind of bawdy or scurrilous way. I even phoned a friend who’s a mental health professional, demanding to know if some of the storyline was plausible. He assured me it was, so I switched off my cynicism and kept reading. Neena’s depression and anxiety spirals into a jarring psychosis, but she is ultimately written as a strong and capable character. In the end I felt the book had done an admirable job of destigmatising psychotic episodes.
The other thing that got my hackles up at one point was the love story. I was worried that the moral to this YA tale was going to be that love conquers all, and that Neena would just get better if she got to live happily ever after with her white British boy. But I needn’t have worried. At the risk of spoiling it, I’ll just say that Neena comes into her own in lots of ways that will satisfy teens and didactic adults alike.
The Million Pieces of Neena Gill is a great addition to YA collections because it’s got meaty stuff to think about. It’s also just an enjoyable read. It confronts big issues, but it does so at a fast pace and with a strong streak of hope. I recommend it.
Reviewed by Liz Patterson