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The year is 1987. High school senior Heera Sanyal lives in a Raleigh-adjacent town in North Carolina in Devi S. Laskar’s second novel, Circa, published May 3 by Mariner.
Heera has dreams, many dreams: wearing blue jeans, kissing her best friend’s brother, freely unbraiding her long, wavy hair, applying mascara. And not being “Heera Sanyal with a multitude of prefixes and hyphens and expectations in the shape and weight of a shifting subcontinent thousands of miles away.”
The Perfect Bengali Daughter
At home, Heera suffers her traditional Bengali parents’ expectations to be the perfect Indian daughter she certainly would be had they not immigrated to America. In the present, she is never enough for them as they hold the past too closely for Heera’s comfort. Nevertheless, she and her vivacious best friend, Marie Grimaldi, and Marie’s brainy brother, Marco, are a tight-knit group with whom she lives a separate existence. Together, they secretly engage in delinquent-worthy activities for the thrills. Pick-pocketing, something for which Heera has developed talent, fuels the trio’s ultimate desire to leave Raleigh and live in New York City.
The night before Heera’s eighteenth birthday and four days before Marie’s, a drunk driver ends Marie’s life as the three walk home from a carnival. In that instant, as Marie draws seventeen shallows breaths, Heera’s and Marco’s lives change forever.
At the hospital, Heera’s grief begins in full force. “It’s one minute past midnight when they officially declare Marie dead. Your birthday. October 31. She is 17 years and 362 days old at the time of her death.”
Heera’s bottomless sorrow is expressed by seeing, feeling, thinking about Marie often and when she least expects it. She turns to her schoolwork to quell her emotions with an eye to her coming graduation and going away to college. Marco, however, reemerges with a new name—Crash—and drowns his grief in alcohol and girls.
Meanwhile, Heera’s mother is diagnosed with myelodyspastic syndrome, and her treatments deplete Heera’s college fund. Defeated, Heera agrees to an arranged marriage because it means she will live in New York City and be allowed to attend university. Despite ticking two of her desired boxes, the marriage is not the relief she needs.
As she waits for the wedding to begin, Heera thinks, “You hold your breath, hear the second hand tick on the wall clock above the door frame, and begin calculating the number of steps you will need to take to leave the hotel, hail a taxi, and run away.”
I am not a fan of novels written in the second person present point of view, which Laskar uses to tell Heera’s story. However, the last time I appreciated it was Veera Hiranandani’s recent How to Find What You’re Not Looking For in which the twelve-year-old narrator navigates her life as it falls apart around her. Similarly, Laskar’s usage allows Heera to freely reexamine and analyze her life, her grief, her yearning to be with Crash in this haunting coming-of-age tale.
As with her debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, Laskar’s writing is without pretension, favoring poeticism and pinpointing the heart of the matter.
“Your breath flies out of your body as they lower the coffin,” Laskar writes of Marie’s funeral.
The intimacy of Heera’s personal tug-of-war—grief and loneliness, desires and restraints, her present versus her parents’ past—is presented not only in the second person present but also in short chapters. It elicits the sense that the reader is joining Heera as she looks through a photo album chronicling her life. It is as if Heera gently runs her fingers over the faces of those people who populated her life, some lovingly, others with a sharp fingernail.
Circa is a unique study of friendships and relationships and bonds that never loosen despite loss, grief, and separation. In less than 200 pages, Laskar offers readers myriad opportunities not only for discussion but also introspection and healing in our own lives.