Thriller ratchets up tension, social justice conversation

MY SWEET GIRL by Amanda Jayatissa, Berkley, 376 pages, $26

Great fiction can lead us down a storied path toward real-world revelations. And if made-up stories can entertain and thrill even as they push us to reckon with things like racism and social injustice, so much the better. Some of this year’s best crime noir novels — S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears and White Ivy by Susie Yang to name just two — do just that. Sri Lankan author Amanda Jayatissa’s My Sweet Girl — an exciting, highly original new thriller — is another one for that list.

My Sweet Girl is a terrifying and twisty tale laced with secrets and otherworldly horror. Jayatissa incorporates elements of a classic Sri Lankan folk tale about a ghost named Mohini, a terrifying creature who stitches together the story’s double narrative and elevates the fright level.

The book begins in present-day San Francisco where 30-year-old Paloma Evans, who blacks out when drunk, has just discovered her flatmate, Arun, dead at the kitchen table. Paloma has just returned from the bank where she attempted unsuccessfully to withdraw funds because Arun was blackmailing her. He’d discovered the devastating secret Paloma’s been hiding for 18 years, ever since a White American couple adopted her from an orphanage in Ratmalana, Sri Lanka.

More frightening than Arun’s bloody corpse is the horrifying presence Paloma senses in her flat. Paloma has spent years trying to convince herself Mohini isn’t real even though girls in the orphanage swore they saw the specter roaming at night. Yet, here she is.

“It was just for a second. A fraction of a second, but I knew. I knew she was back. Her black hair, her pale face. All these years I had spent trying to convince myself that she didn’t exist, that she was a ghost from my childhood, just a product of an overactive imagination, and now here she was.”

When Arun’s corpse disappears before the police arrive, Paloma is not sure if she hallucinated the event or if she had really walked into a murder scene.

The novel smoothly segues between adult Paloma’s narration in the present and her 12-year-old self recounting her life at the Little Miracles Girls’ Home in Sri Lanka. Might one — or both — of these narrations be unreliable? The bigger question is why adult Paloma’s narrative is so full of self-loathing and expletive-spewing anger while her younger, pre-adopted self seems mostly kind and sweet. And how could Mohini, a ghost, cross continents to find her? Soon, Paloma sees the rampaging Mohini everywhere, but what’s more frightening: The ghost’s cyclonic rage and upending of Paloma’s life or Paloma finally confronting what she did when she was 12?

This is compelling storytelling that Jayatissa, who lived for a time in Britain and the United States, electrifies with Paloma’s experience as a woman of color living in a predominantly White world. We witness the many racist encounters Paloma endures because of her looks: All the times she’s been mistaken for another Brown girl, “been eroticized and disregarded,” or was treated like an exotic pet by her mother’s do-gooder friends.

Jayatissa drops dozens of clues about Paloma’s secret, but Mohini is an enormous distraction that keeps readers from seeing the truth. Long after the end of My Sweet Girl, you may imagine Mohini’s bloody fingernails clawing at your neck. 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Thank you for joining the conversation on Please familiarize yourself with the community guidelines. Avoid personal attacks: Lively, vigorous conversation is welcomed and encouraged, insults, name-calling and other personal attacks are not. No commercial peddling: Promotions of commercial goods and services are inappropriate to the purposes of this forum and can be removed. Respect copyrights: Post citations to sources appropriate to support your arguments, but refrain from posting entire copyrighted pieces. Be yourself: Accounts suspected of using fake identities can be removed from the forum.