Aspects of Amanda Jayatissa's debut thriller may call to mind several of Alfred Hitchcock's classics--especially Vertigo--but My Sweet Girl is neither derivative nor a Hitchcock homage: it's a homespun tour de force that will elicit an amusement park ride's worth of gasps.
One of the novel's two alternating story lines plays out in San Francisco and is driven by an amusingly foulmouthed, drink-addled and short-tempered narrator. "Be nice, Paloma. Be kind," is one of her many stabilizing self-directed imperatives. As the novel opens, she drunkenly returns to her apartment and finds her roommate, Arun, who has been blackmailing her, dead at the kitchen table ("Focus, Paloma"), his head on the table in a pool of blood. She flees the apartment. When the police finally come on the scene, Arun's body is gone, as is the telltale blood.
The novel's other story line unspools 18 years earlier in Ratmalana, Sri Lanka, at the Little Miracles Girls' Home. Twelve-year-old narrator Paloma and the other young residents of the orphanage are giddily anticipating a visit from a wealthy American couple, each girl harboring the same wish to be adopted.
Jayatissa's gift for plotting is matched by her grace lacing her narrative with rich social themes, among them cultural assimilation and the different values placed on white versus brown bodies. In a canny touch, the novel's plot hinges on the literary classic Wuthering Heights ("Mrs. Evans was going to be my Catherine. She was going to save me," thinks 12-year-old Paloma). My Sweet Girl may well become, likewise, a classic. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer