Review: In the Key of Nira Ghani – Natasha Deen

Trumpet on a case

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Adolescence is a difficult time. The pressure to fit in – wear the right clothes; say the right things; be popular; be smart; be true to yourself, but don’t be weird. And don’t forget the hormones. Add to that a traditional family from another culture, and you’ve got all the makings of Natasha Deans’ modern-day coming of age story, In the Key of Nira Ghani (Running Press Teens). Although there is something routine about the coming of age story, Nira and her family are immigrants to Canada from Guyana, and the addition of both Guyanese cultural elements and life as immigrants in a new country add to the complexity of Nira’s experience.

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According to the bureaucratic rules of the time in which Nira’s parents migrated, they were forced to sacrifice everything they had had in Guyana, and to start again from scratch in Canada. At a later stage, however, when her Uncle Raj and Aunty Gul, migrated with their daughter, Farah, the rules had changed, allowing them to bring their wealth with them. In addition to exacerbating an already fraught sibling relationship between Raj and Nira’s father, in which competition creates tension for everyone, this highlights the arbitrariness of government policy, and the impact that it has on the lives of those affected. Where Nira’s family must consider every dollar they spend, Farah has seemingly limitless money and the ability to get anything she wants. When this appears to include Nira’s friends, however, further difficulties arise.


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As she navigates her way through friendship rifts and parental expectations, Nira’s relationship with her indomitable grandmother is a source of relief. Against expectations that she will go to medical school with top grades, Nira’s true love in music – a passion her grandmother shares. There is a sense that, despite having presumably lived the majority of her life in Guyana, Nira’s grandmother has enough distance from the situation to see both sides: the parent’s desire for their child to have a “better” life, and the child’s desire for that life to be on her own terms. Irrespective of the conflict, she is always on hand with a quiet word and a cup of tea. Or sometimes just the tea. Nira’s relationship with her grandmother is one of the most special parts of the book, inviting the reader to share in the love that allows Nira to feel seen, and to grow in the confidence required to pursue her own dreams.


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Nira’s relationships with her friends are also an important part of the book – as is the case in most adolescents’ lives. Initially, Nira’s best friend, Emily, is the only person with a close role in her life (outside of her family) but the addition of popular kids, Noah and McKenzie, to that circle causes both pleasure and pain. Although it becomes clear why these two decide to join with Nira and Emily as the book progresses, it sometimes feels as though this is contrived, as, in most real-life cases, the popular kids would not have jumped ship to sit with the kids who sit alone. Perhaps drawing from a lower tier of the lunchroom echelons would have made the story that bit more convincing.

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In the overall characterisation of the novel, however, this critique is small and the book is an enjoyable read. For lovers of jazz and lovers of family and friends, In the Key of Nira Ghani is like a cup of tea in the kitchen with Grandma – comfortable, consoling, and exactly what you need.

Thanks to Running Press for providing an advance copy of In the Key of Nira Ghani for review. It is now publicly available for purchase.

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