The first time I opened My Sweet Girl, a debut psychological thriller from author Amanda Jayatissa, I instantly took to the main character, Paloma. She’s unlikeable from the start — impatient, frustrated, and entirely disinterested in making a good impression on the reader or anyone else around her. Her simmering anger instantly spoke to me, because it’s something that many Asian American people can understand: exhaustion from having to play the part of the model minority.
In My Sweet Girl, Paloma is the living embodiment of every older millennial freelancer. She’s trying to get her graphic design business off the ground, but the circumstances around her, as well as the struggles of her own past, are affecting her mental health enough that she can’t concentrate on her work. She’s also had a fight with her parents and is probably drinking more than is strictly healthy for her. It’s in the midst of all this that Paloma stumbles home to find her roommate Arun dead — murdered in their apartment.
There are a few things that make this even more complicated for Paloma: First, she passes out upon discovery of the body, and when she wakes, Arun’s body is gone and the apartment is spotless. Her status as an unreliable narrator is clear (especially when Paloma reveals that she’s haunted by a ghost from her childhood), and yet, I couldn’t help but believe her. As the reader, I knew that Paloma wasn’t telling me everything I needed to know, but on this I knew she was telling the truth. The second issue was that Arun had recently discovered Paloma’s deepest, darkest secret — and was blackmailing her over it.
The crux of that secret takes the reader back to Paloma’s time in an orphanage in Sri Lanka, and her adoption by white American missionary parents. The novel proceeds in two different timelines, as the reader follows Paloma’s present-day journey, as well as her past at the orphanage. This storytelling structure serves to heighten the tension, as I pushed forward to discover the truth behind Paloma’s past as well as the mysteries that surround her adult self.
My Sweet Girl excels on so many fronts: It’s a well-written psychological thriller that kept me hooked from beginning to end (no small feat right now, as my attention span is severely limited, thanks to world events). It’s also surprisingly funny — Jayatissa has a great sense of humor that serves Paloma well as she slowly reveals her full self to the reader. But the exploration of Paloma’s identity and character is what really drew me to this book and has me thinking about it long after I turned the final page.
Paloma is an “other” in every way. Asians who immigrated to the United States as young kids and children of immigrants, like myself, often feel like we live in between worlds: The US is where we spent our formative years, but we never quite fit in because of skin color, culture, and other differences. But I certainly don’t belong in my parents’ country of origin, India, either. Paloma experiences the worst of this kind of in-between otherness because she is a transracial adoptee — desperately trying to fit in with these new parents, in this new country, in this foreign culture, without anyone who looks like her to guide her on this painful journey.
But, like most immigrants and children of immigrants, Paloma learns to assimilate into American culture, and her identity becomes something of a hyphenate — not quite American, at least by others’ standards, but not Sri Lankan anymore either. But because she’s a transracial adoptee, she never find a place that she fits in, even if it’s among other misfit kids who look like you. When she encounters a fellow Sri Lankan in her adult life, she feels shame for not speaking Sinhalese. Paloma’s entire life is measured in living up to others’ expectations, and she feels she comes up short everywhere she turns.
This thread of uncertainty is woven expertly into the larger narrative as Jayatissa asks probing and uncomfortable questions about who we are and how others see us. In the end, My Sweet Girl is a thriller centered on the meaning of identity and all the layers it can have. It’s thoughtful and engaging, but also quite profound. It’s hard to believe this novel is a debut, but it makes me incredibly excited to see what Jayatissa does next, as she has a bright future ahead of her.
Swapna Krishna writes about space, tech, and pop culture at outlets such as Engadget, StarTrek.com, and Oprah Magazine. You can find her on Twitter at @skrishna.