Asha and the Spirit Bird, by Jasbinder Bilan

‘You have to believe in things if you want them to happen.’ Jasbinder Bilan’s debut novel is a ceaselessly optimistic book. We begin in desperate circumstances: Asha’s father has left their village in the Himalayan foothills to work in the distant city of Zandapur, but he hasn’t written for weeks. Asha’s Ma has had to give away the tractor, the only source of income for the family. If no money arrives from Asha’s Pa in short order, they’ll have to sell the farm and start a new life in England. Something must be done; Asha can’t imagine leaving their home.

Neither will the reader. The world depicted by Bilan is technicolor-lush, crowded with sensory delight:

Glossy black-winged rosefinches, with their blushed underbellies, chatter and dive out from between the branches, chasing each other, dripping from rain from the leaves, like holy water.

It’s a rain-drenched, wind-swept landscape, with all the vivid of first person, present tense narrative from Asha. It’s also a place richly imbued with personal meaning: from Asha’s family history (and family mystery too!), to elements of Hindu legend, to something in-between – the reincarnation of Asha’s nanijee as a majestic lamagaia bird. Or is it?

Inspired by her love for the farm, by her belief in family and her faith in the spirit bird, Asha sets out on a seemingly impossible quest to reach her father and discover the truth. Will her best friend, Jeevan, believe in it too? What, if anything, will she find at the end of her epic trek? Can she survive among wolf packs, snowfall, the unscrupulous men and women of Zandapur itself?

It’s no spoiler to say that – after a great deal of drama and adventure, not to mention a beautifully evocative description of a mountain temple — everything ultimate turns out well for our heroes. There is a pervasive charm to the novel (to call it sweet would make it sound sickly, which Bilan resists), at times leaning toward naivety, but this mode doesn’t prevent the children from straying into several desperate situations. However, hope and belief always lead them toward safety before too long. Not in a Pollyannaish way either, but with furious determination (perhaps more reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables). ‘Listen to me,’ she says, in probably their darkest hour. ‘If we all act together, we can be strong – think about your ancestors, call on their spirits to help you.’

It’s no wonder at all that Bilan’s novel has won the Costa children’s category this year. Young readers are faced with an increasingly screened off, hostile culture, that is frightened of the future and riven with tensions. They need Asha’s belief in the future and the past, not to mention the vicarious pleasure of staring down tigers by firelight in a snow-bound forest; moreover, they need novels with the vibrancy and warmth of Bilan’s. This was clearly a very personal novel for her to write – and it will be exciting to see what she gives us in years to come…

Asha and the Spirit Bird is published by Chicken House Books, and you can purchase it via their website, through Waterstones, or at your local independent bookshop (use it or lose it). Jasbinder Bilan’s author website is here.

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