Tamarind and the Star of Ishtar by Jasbinder Bilan

Tamarind and the Star of Ishtar by Jasbinder Bilan. Chicken House, Scholastic, 2022. 9781338769432

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3

Format: ARC (publication April, 2022)

Genre: Magical realism

What did you like about the book?  Twelve-year-old Tam has never known her mother, but finds herself bundled off for a week with her maternal extended family in India, while Dad and new wife Chloe spend a week traveling. There’s a whole crew awaiting her at the family’s remote rural mansion surrounded by exquisite gardens: Arjun (who’s a bit younger), Sufia (his slightly older and grumpy sister), Grandma, and Aunt Simran. Tam longs to learn about her mom, Chinty, but everyone seems reluctant to talk about her. On a nighttime visit to a forbidden hut, she meets Ishta, an adventurous but mysterious girl her own age with a beautiful pet monkey. No one seems to know anything about the visitor, who reveals herself only to Tam. Sufia is initially hostile toward Tam, but warms to her as the girls experience a scary encounter with wolves and are saved by Ishta. Toward the end of the novel, Bilan reveals that Ishta is actually Tam’s mother, who’s returned to meet her daughter and help the family heal. I liked the emphasis on food in the book. Born in England and raised by a single dad, Tamarind is not an adventurous eater and worries about whether she’ll be able to eat anything during her week reunion. The family’s housekeeper wins her over, cooking many of the dishes beloved by Chinty. I did feel for Tam, whose motherless grief felt genuine. 

Anything you didn’t like about it? The characters, including Tamarind, felt two-dimensional, which made it hard for me to connect with them. Many of the plot contrivances felt clumsy. It turns out the family’s reticence to speak of Chinty stems from the fact that she died in childbirth, which is hurtfully revealed to Tam by Sufia. Unbelievable bombshell to keep concealed from a child about to meet her estranged family! The whole magical realism elements, especially the quick reveal at the end about Ishta’s identity, left me confused. 

To whom would you recommend this book?  Students in grades 3-6 interested in Indian culture and stories about extended families. A read alike I would be more likely to recommend would be A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi, about two very different girls who become friends during a summer in Pakistan.

Who should buy this book? Elementary schools, public libraries

Where would you shelve it?  Fiction

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: February 10, 2022

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