Author: Sheela Chari
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery, PoC, Middle Grade
Publication Date: July 2011
Hardcover: 336 Pages
Eleven-year-old Neela dreams of being a famous musician, performing for admiring crowds on her traditional Indian stringed instrument. Her particular instrument was a gift from her grandmother-intricately carved with a mysterious-looking dragon.
When this special family heirloom vanishes from a local church, strange clues surface: a tea kettle ornamented with a familiar pointy-faced dragon, a threatening note, a connection to a famous dead musician, and even a legendary curse. The clues point all the way to India, where it seems that Neela’s instrument has a long history of vanishing and reappearing. Even if Neela does track it down, will she be able to stop it from disappearing again?
Sheela Chari’s debut novel is a finely tuned story of coincidence and fate, trust and deceit, music and mystery.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): eBook (Kindle)
Why did I read this book: I’ve had this on my radar for a while but completely forgot about it until this review over at Practically Marzipan reminded me of it.
Neela is an eleven-year-old who loves playing her veena (a traditional Indian instrument) and dreams about being a famous performer one day despite her difficulties with performing in front of a large audience. Her biggest frustration for now is how she has to learn using her teacher’s old veena. Then one day in the post there comes a big surprise: her grandmother – a veena collector – has sent her one of her treasured veena, one that is beautifully carved with a dragon. Neela starts playing her new veena and falls in love with the lovely sounds it produces.
Until the day the veena vanishes.
Her family tries to find it – the veena disappeared from a church where Neela had hidden from a storm so they go back and search for it to no avail. But then strange things keep happening: mysterious people seem to be far too interested in the instrument; Neela sees a tea kettle that has the same dragon as her veena; a threatening letter is sent to her house.
Her family tell her to let it go but Neela is convinced that there is something afoot. Determined to track her veena down, she ends up entangled in a long history of deception and curses.
Oh, but Vanished was surprising and lovely.
It combines several elements seamlessly: the well-developed mystery of the vanished veena, observations about history and tradition, Neela’s developing sense of self-worth and identity, passion and music, families and friendship.
Out of those, two threads stood out: Neela’s family dynamics and the representation of Indian-American families.
The former is brilliantly portrayed in those small things that make up daily life and routine. It’s how their family can never be on time for anything or how their father greets them every time he walks into the room. It’s in the depiction of Neela’s loving but increasingly difficult relationship with her mother and how for example, her mother touches her hair in a way that often irritates but also soothes; or how her mother is often immersed in puzzling traditional beliefs that Neela does not share. There is also her relationship with her little brother, their shared love for the veena and how she deals with his fear of having a haircut (will it suck his brains out?) in a way that is both funny and heart-warming.
The latter comes from the depiction of different Indian families in the US in a way that is not about the “unique” experience of Indian families in America as though there was such a thing. Both Neela and her best friend Pavi are America-born with Indian parents and those two families experience and live very differently in a way that is respectful of different choices and which comes without any judgement about which way is “better”. Neela and Pavi are young and still trying to understand and form an identity. There is a clash of family expectations and of cultural and social norms that never overtake the narrative but which are there nonetheless. When Neela strikes a friendship with a boy, she is fearful because she has no idea what her mother would say and is pleasantly surprised at how it turned out to be a non-issue at all.
Above all I loved Neela and her spirited determination to do what she feels needs to be done. Highly recommended.
Notable Quotes/Parts: You can read a long excerpt HERE.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Charm and Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
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