All of Me by Venita Coelho, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books: Book Review

It takes a little while to figure out what exactly is happening. Why are sections in italics? Who are all these weird people? And what’s happening with those other people, the cops for instance? Slowly, it dawns on the reader: these are voices in the head of the central character, an 11-year-old called Castor. It is striking how brilliantly this novel has been titled.
All of Me: many personalities contained within a single individual.

The gradual unravelling of the presence of The Family within Castor’s physical manifestation even as a mystery unfolds must surely be the most significant feature of this unputdownable novel from Venita Coelho. This level of writing is what we’ve come to expect of her, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Within the first few pages you realize that Castor and his opinionated friends have been imprisoned in a dark room by the boy’s uncle for several years. Fortuitously they are rescued by two cops, one of them, Joshua, a rookie. Following a series of events and some insightful questioning by Joshua, they set out to find out why they were kept prisoner by someone whom they’ve thought of as nothing but kind. One thing leads to another and they find themselves being chased by blue-turbaned men who seem like soldiers. They turn out to be from the court of an Indian maharaja, but Castor, Joshua and friends have no idea why they are being targeted.

All the while, Castor has been nursing a big hole in his heart: the loss of his mother and father. One day, while they’re being chased by the Blue Turbans, they are unexpectedly and successfully helped by a smart military man. One thing leads to another and they discover the connection between this man, their uncle and Castor’s parents. This is when the Koh-i-Noor makes its appearance in the story and the penny drops. Now they know where their quest is leading them. Mixed up in all of this is magic, real magic, plenty of it.

Regular readers tend to read fast, often anticipating words and phrases, even skipping some. But All of Me compels the reader to take in every word. Once you understand the reason for the italics, you then understand why sometimes the text that should have been italicized, is not. Perplexed? Don’t be, it’s logical and self-explanatory.

The other remarkable thing about the novel, apart from it being fast-paced without sacrificing details, is the way in which the phenomenon of multiple personalities has been revealed. Quite apart from cleverly meeting the requirements of the plotline, this mental health condition is presented in a way that you actually begin to understand it with empathy, along with Joshua. That is a feat in itself.

Then of course there is the racy plot which is not dampened even by a large section in the second half of the book delivered in the manner of a monologue by the military man. This is a crucial part of the novel because it places the role of the Koh-i-Noor in context, the reason in fact why this story was spun.

In her acknowledgements, Venita tells us that a comment by a once-prime minister of England, David Cameron, is what triggered this story. She writes, ‘While on a visit to India in 2013, he was asked to return the Koh-i-Noor. He replied, “I don’t believe in returnism.” The sheer colonial arrogance of that reply made me so mad, I sat down to write.’ Thank you, Mr. Cameron. This one’s for Venita Coelho fans and those waiting in the wings. Go for it.

All of Me is part of the Parag Honour List 2020. You can buy it here.

Sandhya Rao is a Chennai-based journalist, children’s writer and editor.

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