On the 5th of January, the longlist for the inaugural Jhalak Prize was announced. The prize, launched to award the best writing from UK writers of colour, has a list which spans young adult and adult fiction – including short stories – as well as non-fiction. Of the eleven longlisted titles (there were twelve but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina Is Not OK, withdrew from the prize), six are by women. I intend to review all six and, purely because they were the first titles available at my local library, I’m starting with the young adult novels.
‘You’re a boy. And so what? Girls can go on adventures too.’
‘Have you ever heard of a girl going on an adventure?’
I flushed in the darkness. I had only heard of one. ‘Arinta.’
The Girl of Ink and Stars is set on the isle of Joya. When the Governor – Governor Adori – arrived on the island, he closed the ports and made the forest between the village of Gromera and the rest of the island into a border. Anyone who resisted his rule was banished to the other side. The only map that exists of the island is one passed down the narrator Isabella’s mum’s side of the family, even though it is her father who is a cartographer.
Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin, in the way we walk, even in the way we grow. Da would often say. See here, how my blood runs not blue at my wrist, but black? Your mother always said it was ink. I am a cartographer through to my heart.
Thirteen-year-old Isabella lives with her da. Her mum and brother, Gabo, are dead from sweating sickness. She has two friends, Pablo, the fifteen-year-old who lives opposite and is known for his strength, and Lupe, the Governor’s daughter.
We made an odd set, Lupe and I: she as tall as a near-grown boy, and I barely reaching her shoulder. She seemed to have got even taller in the month since I had last seen her. Her mother would not be pleased. Señora Adori was a petite, elegant woman with sad eyes and a cold smile. Lupe said she never laughed and believed girls should not run, nor have any right to be as tall as Lupe was getting.
On the day the story begins, Isabella goes to meet Lupe to walk to school, as usual. On the way to their meeting point, she is grabbed by the mother of one of her classmates, Cata Rodriguez. Cata is missing. It’s soon revealed that Lupe sent Cata into the forest to get her some dragon fruit. Isabella speculates that Cata will have been caught and thrown into the Délado, the labyrinth which serves as a prison beneath the Governor’s house. It turns out to be much worse than that: Cata is dead and there are claw marks on her body, ‘Deep gouges, thick as my thumb’.
A combination of the Governor’s decision to leave Joya for Afrik with his family, the dark forces that appear to have been unleashed on the island, and Lupe’s ignorance at her father’s behaviour culminate in harsh words between her and Isabella. The consequences of this exchange are that Lupe leaves for the forest to discover who killed Cata. Soon, Isabella, disguised as a boy and serving the Governor, is following in an attempt to save her best friend and possibly the entire population of Joya.
In Isabella, Hargrave has created a character who is both smart and, when she needs to, kicks arse. She stands up to inherited, insecure power and points out its shortcomings. She journeys into unmapped territory and maps it herself. She channels her hero Arinta, using her stories for guidance when she needs to survive.
The Girl of Ink and Stars is inventive, fast-paced, thrilling and a hugely satisfying narrative. Girls can indeed go on adventures and turn out not only to be the hero in their own story but in other people’s too.