I was drawn into this book by both the stunning cover and how amazing the main character sounded. And even though this was a read very much out of my comfort zone, I’m so happy I picked up The Night Diary. It blew my mind and I’m sure it will be one of my favorite books of the year!
Title: The Night Diary
Author: Veera Hiranandani
Genre: middle grade, historical fiction
Published on March 6th, 2018 by Kokila (Penguin)
Page count: 272 pages
Nisha is a twelve-year-old girl living in soon-to-be Pakistan who doesn’t know where she belongs anymore. Her mother was Muslim, her father is Hindu, and it is the summer of 1947: the year when India frees itself from the British and is split in two. When Papa decides that staying in Pakistan is too dangerous, Nisha and her family are forced to secretly cross the border into the “new” India and find a new home. The Night Diary follows this family’s journey for their lives, as refugees on trains and on foot.
You guys, this boooooook!!! It hit me right on the feels as soon as I picked it up. I’ve been sitting on this review for a few days and the characters and story haven’t left my mind since. Middle grade is not something I ever read, but this one was such a nice surprise… It took me two sittings to finish the whole novel — I couldn’t put it down!
Since I loved this novel so freaking much!!! I’m bringing you the final review for it. I hope you get around to reading it and that you love it as much as I did! And so let me talk to you about all the awesome themes and stupidly great aspects of this incredible novel!
🍛 a super cute and soft main character
The Night Diary is told entirely from our main character’s point of view. Nisha was born in what is now Pakistan to a Hindu father and a Muslim mother and so, because of this, she is not sure of where she belongs and of why so many people are after her and other Hindus in a place they used to call home.
As you can imagine, this is not an easy situation for a twelve-year-old girl to be in! Since the whole novel is written in diary form, we get a very close and precious look inside Nisha’s brain. We read her thoughts and her doubts as she confides in her late mother.
Thanks to all this, Nisha is such an adorable and precious character. She’s too pure and innocent to deal with everything that is going on around her. All throughout the novel, I just wanted to hug her, feed her, and tell her everything would be alright in the end. What I thought was most interesting about Nisha’s predicament was how she was always confused about the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims. She grew up in a household that had people from both faiths living there, and so neither were really “other” to her. However, at the same time, she can’t really understand how she can be this weird mix that is brewing a lot of hate.
🍛 the brother-sister relationship
Nisha has a twin: Amil. He seems to be the complete opposite of Nisha. Where she is calm and tempered, he is hot-headed and restless. Where she has doubts about the future and herself, Amil is very sure of himself and pragmatic. Add to this the fact that their father seems to have a preference for Nisha, and you’d think the two don’t get along very well.
This is only a little bit true. Indeed, Nisha and Amil are worlds apart — it wouldn’t be outlandish to doubt that they’re siblings. But, all in all, their relationship was captured perfectly by the author. Veera managed to put to paper a very real brother-sister relationship. Amil and Nisha are always there for each other and they care deeply for each other’s feelings and wellbeing. But at the same time, they also bitter and are sometimes mean — just like most siblings I’d say!
Also, since they’re both kids, it’s so heartwarming to see them play around together. I don’t know exactly why, but seeing them run around after each other and just being kids in the middle of this big ol’ political mess was fantastic. I’m so happy the author included these more relaxed moments in the middle of it all.
🍛 the diary format has so much power
Going into this novel, I had no clue it would be written in diary form. In reality, it’s a mix between diary form and letter form, since every diary entry is addressed at Nisha’s mother (who passed away when Nisha was only a little girl). And this is a format that works perfectly in this context. The writing style is very intimate and super, super soft — just what you’d expect from a twelve-year-old girl.
Since we peer into Nisha’s head through the diary entries, we get one of my favorite things when it comes to narration: a biased and understandably unreal representation of everyday events. As older readers, we know that India’s partition was not peaceful and the riots and conflicts that escalated afterward were founded on hate and intolerance. However, young Nisha isn’t sure of what is happening, let alone why that is happening. And so the end result is a very sweet and innocent perspective on dark and shameful events.
Another great thing about this diary format is how close and attached Nisha gets to this journal. Her house servant, Kazi, gave her the notebook she would use to write this book, and in the first pages of the book, we are given this very insightful and sweet quote:
“When Kazi gave it to me, he said it was time to start writing things down, and that I was the one to do it. He said someone needs to make a record of the things that will happen because the grown-ups will be too busy. I’m not sure what he thinks is going to happen, but I’ve decided I’m going to explain things to you as if I’m writing a storybook, like The Jungle Book except without all the animals. I want to make it real so you can imagine it. I want to remember what everyone says and does, and I won’t know the ending until I’m there.”
🍛 complicated politics through an innocent lens
This point ties in with the previous one, but I wanted to still separate the two. Since this is a historical fiction novel, there is of course a lot of talk about the true historical events surrounding the plot. We are treated to several developments of the British-Hindu-Muslim-Sikh talks that went on leading to Indian independence and partition. All this is shown to us, the readers, through the eyes of Nisha as she hears her dad talking to people about the political situation and as she sees newspaper headlines covering the talks.
This topic isn’t an easy one. It sure isn’t easy to understand fully and in an unbiased manner for an adult, so you can imagine how much harder it is for a child. Once again, we’re only seeing what Nisha sees and the information we’re getting is only what Nisha filters as important and is affected by how she perceives it. This makes for amazing storytelling and helps you to really connect with the main character. There are times when you, an adult, know that what’s coming isn’t good but you have to struggle through the pages dreading the moment things take a turn for the worse, and in the meantime, Nisha has no clue what will happen…
“‘Do we have to take a side’ I asked.
‘I think it’s safer. That way you know who your enemy is,’ Amil said, and crossed his arms tightly over his chest.
‘But if we don’t take a side, then we don’t have enemies.’
I don’t think it works that way,’ Amil said.
‘Gandhiji would agree with me,’ I told him. ‘And anyway I thought the two sides were supposed to be us and the British. Why are we fighting each other?'”
🍛 conflicting identities
Another topic I love reading about is conflicting identities. Since I never really had experience with this, I adore seeing the world through the lenses of people who struggle with seemingly conflicting parts of their identity. I’m a sucker for it — both in literature and in academic sociology texts. And this is exactly what we get with this book!
As I’ve mentioned, Nisha is half-Muslim, half-Hindu and living in what is today’s Pakistan. Therefore, the majority of the people around her are Muslim, which isn’t really a problem until a point in her life until 1947 (the time when she writes her diary). From here on out, Nisha starts to question who she really is. Is she Muslim? Is she Hindu? Does it matter? How does this shape who she is as a person? Can she still play with her friends the way she did a few years before?
This was so heartbreaking to see happen and made Nisha an even more interesting character. One of my favorite quotations from the book shows exactly this inner struggle Nisha is going through:
“Why didn’t he ever try to see us? Is it because Papa told us we are Hindu and not both Muslim and Hindu after you died? Can you be both? Sometimes I don’t really feel like anything, not Hindu, not Muslim. Is that a bad thing to feel?”
🍛 so much delicious food!
Of course, I couldn’t not mention just how delicious every dish described in this novel sounds. Nisha brings up dinner parties her parents used to host and the intricate dishes Kazi used to cook for them back home. And honestly, they made me crave Indian food so, so hard! (Fun fact: it made me convince my boyfriend to go to our favorite Indian place in our city for Valentine’s day — I can’t waitttttt).
Besides everything sounded absolutely delicious, it also taught me a few things about traditional cuisine of the region. From how things are made to how certain dishes are prepared and how they should be eaten, the mentions to food are so amazing in this novel. Honestly, I had no clue so many desserts existed in Indian cuisine — I sure haven’t tried them yet, but I will!
Also, food is an important part of the novel in of itself. Nisha loves Kazi, since she grew up around him and holds him as one of the people she respects the most in the world. Since he is the house cook, she ends up developing a deep and meaningful connection with food as a result. When it’s time to leave their home, Nisha grabs a stone mortar Kazi used to cook savory meals. It’s moments like these that made my heart flutter and feel incredibly sad for this sweet young girl I grew to love so much.
🍛 great diverse literature for young readers
Being a middle-grade novel, it’s aimed at young audiences — I’d say kids who are around twelve years old, just like the main character. And I think that the writing style, the plot, and the characters were planned perfectly to get young readers to LOVE the story. It’s so nice seeing such great books that can be enjoyed by children and by adults discussing such important issues. I’m so, so happy this book exists and that young teens can learn about India’s history thanks to it!
🍛 helpful notes at the end!
When I read a book set in a country I’m not familiar with, I find it very useful to have a list of terms and an explanation of some cultural things. India is such a diverse and culturally rich country that sometimes I felt a little lost in the middle of it all. Very simple things such as “what is the difference between this dress and that dress?” or “what is this food that keeps being referenced?” can really distract me sometimes.
When writing a book aimed at younger audiences, I feel like it’s very important to explain these small cultural aspects. After all, it would be awesome if all readers walked away from this book having not only liked the plot and characters but also learned something about their culture and country. Footnotes and appendixes are great for this. And so I was over-the-moon happy to see several pages at the end of the novel dedicated to clearing up cultural questions!
If you’re worried about picking this novel up because you’re not familiar with 1947 India (politically, for example) or because you have no background on Indian culture, don’t worry. I’d highly recommend reading the final appendix where the author goes into detail explaining a bunch of things. It doesn’t spoil the story at all — rather, it makes it more immersive and interesting!
I recommend this book to…
- Young teens who want to read
- Anyone wanting to read about India’s history and past
- Book clubs at schools!
- School libraries!!!
- Literally all readers ever
~ Little side note ~
As soon as I finished The Night Diary I immediately took to Twitter to rave about how amazing it had been. I tagged the author (like I always do when my review is positive!) and Veera Hiranandani actually replied to my Tweet!!!!!! It feels so nice to hear feedback from authors whose work you loved…
Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. This has not affected my judgement, however.