Nira lives with her parents and her grandmother in Canada—her family escaped from Guyana in search of safety and security but had to leave without their money. As in many novels about the children of immigrants, Nira walks the line between appreciating her parents’ culture and yearning to blend in with her classmates at her new school. As the only brown girl, Nira feels both incredibly conspicuous and tragically invisible, discounted by everyone but her best friend Emily. Her one escape is her music. Though her parents have decided that she will become a doctor and therefore needs to focus only on her studies, Nira convinced them to buy her a used trumpet, which she taught herself to play via YouTube. When Nira plays, she expresses all of the love, conflict, and confusion that dominate her life.
A brilliant student, Nira vies always to meet the high expectations of her family. She always, however, falls short. After her family emigrated, her father’s brother Raj brought his family to Canada as well, taking advantage of a new loophole that allowed him to escape with his bank account intact. The brothers’ relationship is one of constant comparison: of belongings, of ambition, of their daughters’ academics. Nira’s cousin Farah attends a private school where she blends in with the “Farahbots,” other wealthy girls who share their heritage and culture. Anchoring both girls is Grandma, one of my favorite characters. Grandma is wise, funny, and realistic about the challenges Nira faces as she struggles to find her place. Most of the time, Grandma sits back and lets her family figure things out for themselves, but when she intervenes, she’s a “puppet master” who pulls all the right strings (loc. 664).
Though Nira fights against the superficial judgments of others, she does herself fall prey to judging based on appearances. Much of the novel involves Nira learning to peel back layers, to understand that everyone has secret fears and hopes. Her friendship with Emily changes as they begin to invite others to her group—much to Nira’s chagrin—and Nira must deal with feeling pushed out of the relationships that anchor her. Emily becomes close to McKenzie, a popular girl whose constant misunderstandings about Nira—she’s Hindi, she’s Muslim, she’s from India, and SO many more—and Nira can’t understand how Emily can look past McKenzie’s prejudiced behavior. Nira’s love for music leads her to know Noah, a popular boy in the jazz band. Nira decided early on that Noah is out of her league, so she suppresses her crush in favor of being his friend. Eventually, Farah (despite Nira’s best efforts) joins this friend group, and Nira must strive to figure otu where she fits in this new arrangement of five.
All of these elements are made essential by Deen’s writing: even when, as a reader, I became frustrated with characters, I understood their perspective. Deen crafts characters of such complexity that we understand both why Nira wants new, name-brand clothes and why the entire idea is anathema to her parents. We understand why Grandma insists on making tea in every situation and why her use of sugar in the tea signals the kind of situation she’s dealing with. We understand why Emily is Nira’s best friend, why Nira is jealous of their new friends, and why Emily is insisting that Nira be more understanding. Most of all, we understand both why Nira desires so strongly to please her parents and why she just can’t give up on music. Emily tells Nira early on that her playing reminds her of Neil—not Louis—Armstrong because when Nira plays, “[she] make[s] [Emily] think of moonlight and defying gravity” (loc. 74).
Through the book, Nira becomes a keeper of secrets, both her own and others’, and each secret “steals the stars from the sky and the light from the moon” (loc. 1538). As a reader in on those secrets, I felt every moment of Nira’s story, of her imperfections and her pursuit of growth, of her moments of being an outsider and of belonging, of seeing her path clearly and being pushed off of that path. Watching her figure out herself and those around her is a journey I won’t forget, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Pre-order Natasha Deen’s In the Key of Nira Ghani immediately. You won’t regret it.
A Note from Ashley, Jen, and Sara
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