Book Review: My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa
By Doreen SheridanSeptember 14, 2021
When Paloma was growing up in the Little Miracles Girls’ Home in Sri Lanka, all she wanted was to be adopted. She could hardly believe it when rich and beautiful Mr. and Mrs. Evans from San Francisco took an interest in her and wanted to take her home as their daughter. It felt like a dream come true, even if it meant leaving everything and everyone she knew and loved behind. Secretly, she was also glad to be able to escape the terrifying future she saw in store for her under the sadistic discipline of Sister Cynthia, who would take over her care once she aged out of the home.
Fast forward eighteen years and the now Sri Lankan American Paloma Evans is an alcoholic barely holding herself together. Arun, the immigrant roommate she’s been illegally subletting to, has discovered the secret she’s spent so many years hiding, and is trying to blackmail her. Unfortunately for them both, her bank accounts are frozen, and the wealthy parents she’s been having such a hard time talking to won’t be unfreezing them any time soon. After an unsuccessful attempt to con a bank clerk into forwarding her the money she needs, Paloma stops at a bar. So what if she shouldn’t be drinking while on her medication for psychiatric disorders? She just needs a drink or two in order to build up her courage before facing Arun again.
When she finally feels ready and staggers back to her apartment to plead for mercy, she’s horrified to find her would-be blackmailer dead at their kitchen table. Worse, an apparition she thought she’d left behind in Sri Lanka appears, causing her to flee the apartment and lose consciousness in the stairwell. A disapproving neighbor finds her in the morning and wakes her:
The reality of what happened slapped me hard in the face. I didn’t just pass out. I had seen her. Mohini. But that couldn’t be. She didn’t exist. I had spent years in therapy understanding just that. Mohini was just a story we told ourselves in the orphanage. She wasn’t real.
Then what the hell had I seen in my apartment last night?
Fear flooded through me, the pounding in my head getting harder and faster. My front tooth started to hurt.
Arun was dead.
In the cold, sober light of day, Paloma is ready to return to her apartment, call the cops and report Arun’s death… only there’s no trace of a body or blood or other foul play. The police are ready to chalk up her story to the ravings of a hallucinatory drunk but Paloma knows something is deeply wrong. As visions of the terrifying female spirit known as Mohini continue to haunt her, Paloma must finally face her past and the crushing guilt she’s lived with for most of her life, if she wants to have any hope of future happiness.
My Sweet Girl is a page-turning and often genuinely scary psychological thriller, filled with more twists and bite than a rattlesnake! It’s also a searing, brutally honest account of what it means to be a brown person and especially a brown woman in America, a land that is seen as a beacon of happiness for so many people worldwide, yet too often fails those who finally make it to our shores. Twelve-year-old Paloma believes that being adopted by rich white Americans and living in California will solve all her problems. But even though the Evans are as kind as they know how, the wounds they inflict on the psyche of their adopted daughter linger for years.
And while the well-meaning ignorance of parents is something most children eventually overcome, the damage wrought by the racism that said parents turn a blind eye to or, at best, exhort their daughter to overcome by becoming a “model minority,” is harder to fix, even if one can afford expensive therapists and medications. Paloma hides her constant, seething rage behind the sweet, polite persona her parents insist she cultivate, as in passages like these, where she tries to brush off a stranger in a restaurant bathroom who insists they have history:
What I had was a tan and the terrible luck of being a brown person in a place where everyone thought we looked the same because our skin was the color of goddamned caramel.
I braced myself and smiled even wider. “You have a nice night now.”
I pushed open the bathroom door with my elbow and let it bang shut. Stupid fucking white people. Find someone with brown skin and black hair and figure they all come from India, and they all know how to drape a fucking sari and make curry and dance the goddamn bhangra. It wasn’t just this drunk bitch in the bathroom—I was always being mistaken for some other chick, whether or not they looked anything like me.
Having been forcefully told more than once by strange white people that either my memory is bad or I’m straight up lying for telling them that I am not the brown person they recently had a conversation with, I found so much of this book eminently relatable, and am so glad Amanda Jayatissa gives such uncompromising voice to people like me. Paloma is a deeply flawed heroine but her anger and complexity bring real heart and dilemma to this brilliant and audaciously crafted tale. This haunting fable showcases both how racism kills and how it helps you get away with murder. I loved it.