Tuesday, 22 October 2019

The Million Pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith Barton

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: 

I had the pleasure of hearing Emma Smith Barton read the opening to this, her debut novel, at the 2018 Asian Writer Festival. It perfectly encapsulates the close relationship between Neena and her older brother, as Akash comforts her in the garden while their parents argue loudly in the house. In doing so, it sets the scene for the rest of the book.

The story then fast forwards five years. The teenage Akash has disappeared and the family is broken. Neena, her GCSE exams fast approaching, is just about hanging on at school, but behind her parents’ backs she is going out drinking and partying. Her mother never leaves the house. And her father has become rigid, bordering on tyrannical.

This is the story of a family is broken by the loss of one of its members. In particular, it charts, in painful and believable detail, the mental breakdown Neena suffers under the pressures of grief, exams and the need to chart her own path between the conflicting expectations of her family and the world around her.

Neena is like so many teenagers – intelligent, creative and desperately confused. The loss of her brother has ripped a hole in her life.

“[Your] dreams, the belief that you will live them, propel you forward from day to day ... What part of that picture shatters, slips through your fingers like ice-cold water, you can lose yourself within that loss.”

Emma Smith-Barton knows what she is writing about. In her author’s note at the end, she tells us how she, like Neena, suffered from periods of intense anxiety as a child. And how she was inspired to write the book after nursing someone very close to her through a psychotic episode.

The need for a book like this can hardly be overstated. Recent research shows that one in eight school age young people in Britain today suffer from some form of diagnosable mental health condition. Neena gets the help she needs, but too many young people do not. Less than a third of young people referred to metal health services get treatment within a year. The Million Pieces of Neena Gill shows young people that they are not alone, that there is no such thing as ‘normal’ and that, when you are in crisis, there is a path to recovery.

A wonderful debut novel – a tender and sensitive approach to a difficult and necessary subject.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson, Ponti by Sharlene Teo, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson

Avoid If You Dislike: Charting the path through mental illness

Perfect Accompaniment: Halva with honey

Genre: Young Adult

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