Anita and Me by Meera Syal is the story of a young Punjabi girl growing up in the fictional English village of Tollington in the Midlands in the 1970s. The book follows Meena during her pre-teen years as she is desperate to fit in with the other children in her neighbourhood while forever feeling like an outsider because she is “different”. Meena makes friends with Anita, a slightly older girl who is the self-proclaimed leader of a motley gang of outcasts and outsiders. She seems tough and streetwise to Meena and Meena fights earnestly for her attention and approval.
Meena's rich cultural heritage provides a colourful background to the story. The story tells of exotic food, exquisite clothing and late night dinner parties where her parent’s Punjabi friends swap stories of The Partition and a life far more exciting than the daily humdrum life in Tollington in the Midlands.
As the book progresses, Meena seems to fit in quite well with the other children and the family are certainly accepted, admired even, by the community. This all begins to fall apart though as ignorance and racism clash as Meena encounters first hand how hurtful racism and ignorance can be and she struggles to understand the relationships between people and their ideas.
This is an incredible story of Meena’s impressive rite of passage and her development from a selfish, self-involved little child seeking to reject everything about her culture and heritage into a self-assured and confident young girl capable of making the decisions that count. Meera Syal is a well-known comedienne and actress and she infuses the book with an irreverent style which is just as well. There are some pretty serious issues that are raised in the book and I think the comedic style is what eases the reader through those parts. The book is said to be semi-autobiographical as Meera grew up in a mining village in Essington in Wolverhampton.
In terms of readability, I actually voted this book quite low at 50% because I really struggled to get through the first half of the book. The story is told in the narrative style with Meena using flashbacks and snippets of overheard conversations to piece the story together. In the end, the story is expertly woven together and the book itself is incredibly powerful but it was quite hard to read. I personally prevailed by simply setting aside longer stretches of reading time and trying to read whole chapters at a time which is not easy when you are a commuter!
I’m glad I did though. We all have memories of summers that seemed to last forever and of the lifetimes we spent as young children. I’m sure you’ll understand then when I say that although it only covers a year or two out of the life of a pre-teen little girl, this is an epic story that will creep under your skin and colour your perception for a long time to come. The book has recently found its way onto school reading lists which is fantastic as it could certainly work towards teaching children about tolerance and cultural differences.
Deducting points for readability, I give the book four out of five stars and I would recommend it for adults and teenagers alike.