What makes this compelling book so page-turning is not the larger political situation but the drama of small, fraught human interactions. Vijay is good on embarrassment and regret, and on Shalini’s almost pathetically eager and vulnerable desire to be accepted by her Kashmiri Muslim hosts, who are initially wary of her (with good reason, as it turns out). Vijay also handles a chopped time scheme — often a mixed blessing — with exceptional success, as Shalini (an older and wiser 30 as she narrates this) cuts back and forth between her childhood and her ill-fated adventure in Kashmir at the age of 24. Vijay’s mastery of traditional narrative skills wouldn’t be out of place in a classic 19th-century novel, and she has a deft way of revealing information slowly, a talent for secrets and surprises (including the old gothic favourite of a secret room), along with a flair for sentimentality.
Vijay writes with an assurance surprising in a first-time novelist, and is a delight to read. And while this is an in-depth expansion on the history and people of Jammu and Kashmir (humane but never sentimental), it is her protagonist who compels most, as Shalini watches her certainties gradually taken away from her and then returned laden with nuance and complexity.