The million pieces of Neena Gill by Emma Smith-Barton
Penguin, 2019. ISBN: 9780241363317.
(Ages: 15+) Recommended. Themes: Mental health, Contemporary. Emma Smith-Barton's debut novel draws on her own experience as a Pakistani child growing up in the UK.
Not only does Neena have to deal with the usual teenage search for identity but ten months of grief since the mysterious disappearance of her older brother Akash, whom she obviously adored. Her parent's grief exacerbates their cultural expectations of Neena and she begins to 'act out'. When they announce a new pregnancy, Neena really flips out.
Neena seeks solace in the company of Fi, her brother's ex-girlfriend - perhaps to feel close to him again or maybe to solve the mystery that is consuming her. She juggles the demands of school, work and home with her need to feel numb with Fi. A clandestine romance with gentle Josh, only adds to her pressures. Neena's confusion persists and she puts herself in danger visiting an older drug addict who may or may not know something about Akash's disappearance. Neena's childhood friend, Raheela, reaches out to her but is pushed away.
While we wonder what happened to Akash, the story is more about our increasingly unreliable protagonist and our concern for her mental state and destructive behaviour. Smith-Barton uses very mature themes and language to explore the consequences of not talking to someone about your feelings of loss and anxiety - feelings which potentially can spiral into psychosis.
We don't know who to believe in this story, perhaps not Neena. The fast pace and insightful writing teaches us far more about the complexity of grief and trauma than any hopes we harbour that Josh's love has the power to salve Neena's troubled mind. The million pieces of Neena Gill is riveting because it is a credible exploration of a family under pressure and fascinating because we wonder if the pressure came before or after the bad stuff? Emma Smith-Barton may have grown up between two cultures, but she is definitely a very astute observer of the inner life.