I was so impressed by Mitali Perkins’ Rickshaw Girl when I read it two years ago for the Cybils awards that I had a humming excited feeling as I prepared to read her latest, titled Secret Keeper. Today I turned the last page one very happy reader. This is a beautiful book that you won’t soon forget, a story about true sisterhood that is full of heart and heartbreak and characters you’ll care about.
Set during the political turmoil in India in the mid-1970s, Secret Keeper focuses on a family facing a major transition. Asha’s father loses his job and makes the difficult decision to leave his family behind to travel to America to look for work. He plans to secure a job and then send for them to join him. This means that in the meantime, Asha, her older sister Reet, and their mother must move from their home in Dehli to Calcutta to stay with Baba’s brother and his family. This is not something that anyone really wants. Even though Uncle is welcoming and quite kind to his relatives, since he is the man of the house, the three women are entirely at the mercy of his decisions. They wait for word from Baba, hoping that it won’t be long before they leave to start their new life in America. Things don’t progress quickly, however, and money starts to run low. Reet’s beauty attracts a lot of attention in the neighborhood, and soon there are marriage proposals. Asha doesn’t want to lose her sister, and she has never felt more confined by the traditions and expectations of her Uncle’s household and the community beyond. She dreams of continuing her education and having the freedom to do the things she loves, to play sports and enjoy herself like her cousin Raj. She escapes to the rooftop where she writes in her diary and steals some time for herself. In these stolen moments, she meets the boy next door, Jay Sen, and over time, the two begin to care for one another. Then news arrives from America that changes everything and sets Asha and her family on a course none of them ever imagined.
Secret Keeper is incredibly moving. It kind of sneaks up on you, because at first it’s just the story of a family, going through a lot of changes, but then it slowly becomes a lot more than a simple family story. Mitali creates the relationship between Asha and Reet so convincingly. I can’t think of a YA novel in which I’ve appreciated a depiction of sisterhood more than here. Their bond comes through on these pages with real intensity, which makes what happens in the later part of the novel heartwrenching, and really quite unforgettable. You will be inspired to imagine these characters ten, twenty, fifty years down the road in their lives. You will wonder what happened after. I love books like that. I think Mitali also has a talent for writing about the culture of distant places in a way that is fully integrated with the rest of the story. You will never feel like she’s just taking a moment to fill you in on Indian society before getting back to the narrative, and yet you finish her book feeling as if you have gained substantial insight into a different place and the people who lived there. Another thing I admire in this story is the ending. It’s hard, but it’s perfect. Mitali didn’t choose the easy way out. I kept waiting for something to happen to take the story towards a more conventional “happily ever after,” but it is just right.
I’d seen the book trailer for Secret Keeper when it came out earlier this year, and for some reason it left me with the impression that the story was middle grade, so it came as something of a surprise as I was reading along that this is definitely a book for teens that deals with intense emotions and issues.
Secret Keeper is rich and powerful and crafted by a writer of true talent. I’m not waiting two more years to read all the rest of Mitali’s books. I’m off to the library right now.
Secret Keeper is published by Delacorte.