Book Review

Sugar, Smoke, Song

I received an advanced review copy of this book from Edelweiss, and I’m voluntarily providing a review.

I was intrigued by so many facets of this collection of stories. Reema Rajbanshi’s debut novel Sugar, Smoke, Song was a beautifully written work that was deeper than it appeared to be at first.

TRIGGER WARNING: This book addresses conflicted family and romantic relationships, violence, promiscuity, discrimination, racism, self-harm, domestic violence, death, and alludes to rape and eating disorders.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The style of writing is unusual and intriguing, so different from anything I’ve ever read before that it is refreshing and vibrant. It is a collection of four stories told from the viewpoint of various people (mostly women) from a small part of Northern India known as Assam. The stories aren’t restricted to the usual format – they are told through the eyes of different characters, dances incorporating deities and myths, locations across the world, and just when the story is about to feel played out … it would shift to a new tale. It always kept me on my toes.

The stories here basically embody the quote from Leo Tolstoy’s famous work Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I love how the author doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable topics our society avoids discussing. It directly addresses the immigrant experience, and as the daughter of an immigrant myself, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast my own experience with the experience presented in this book. As it turns out, no matter where your family comes from, as humans, we all seem to have a lot more similarities than differences. Despite the similarities, there are also some differences that I learned from. While I am also a member of a minority group, I am Caucasian. I will never know what it is like to live as a brown person in America. This book provided a tiny bit of insight into what being brown in post-9/11 NYC was like. I’m sure this was not even the tip of the iceberg.

It talks about the baggage that comes from having flawed family dynamics, how that affects the family, as well as an individual at the time, further into the future, and any relationships you have. The strained family relationships are a running theme, along with dysfunctional romantic relationships. But while this sounds negative, the book also tackles interracial dating without batting an eye, which I’d expect for any book that is set with the Bronx as a starting point. As a native New Yorker, I can promise you that the Bronx is every bit the multicultural melting pot that is described in this book.

I loved reading about the Assamese culture that I didn’t even know existed until I picked up this book, although there were quite a few words that I am unfamiliar with, my Kindle couldn’t define, and I could not figure out simply using context. Part of me feels as though I am missing out on some vital part of the story, although I did love the way the author used songs or poetry in both the original Assamese and then defined it in English. The characters are realistic, and seem like people I could meet on any given day in any borough of NYC (or any other corner of the world). Overall, I feel that the author did an amazing job with this debut novel, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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