My Sweet Girl alternates between Paloma in the present: a lost, lonely, and precariously employed 30-year-old running from a past secret and investigating twin disappearances; and Paloma in the past: a young girl preparing for a new life in the United States while she and her best friend, Lihini, contend with twin curses and a ghost. The Paloma of the present is going through it, but tries to hide it at all costs. Arun, her Indian roommate overstaying his visa, discovers Paloma’s secret, blackmails her, but ends up murdered before he can cash in. Paloma begins to investigate, in part to make sure her secret stays hidden, and in part because Arun’s body vanished before the police arrive. No body, a pristine crime scene, and Arun’s precarious immigration status means there’s little the police can do.
The first time we meet Paloma, she rattles off a list of people she believes belong in hell — among them, incompetent customer service representatives and mansplainers. She tells us this while white-knuckling through an interaction with a trainee bank teller in attempt to access funds. Paloma is angry. And while we eventually learn, in between gritted teeth, fake smiles, and failed attempts at deep breathing, why Paloma is angry, the targets of her rage indicate she is suffering through her own bureaucratic nightmare.
The reader is trapped in Paloma’s head as she surveys the world for danger, her internal narration swinging between paranoid fury (“[t]ake your time […] I mean it’s just my entire goddamned life that’s riding on your inability to look through a file”) and exhausting self-restraint (“my jaw ached as it tightened, but I didn’t let the smile leave my face”). Paloma can tell us she “fucking hated pretenders” and then immediately lie to a drunk white girl in a bathroom about her shoes. The same white drunk girl mistakes Paloma for another South Asian woman, and Paloma corrects her while maintaining a smile. The pressure Paloma feels to curate an outwardly non-threatening and pleasant demeanor in encounters with complete strangers, even in the context of her current crisis, is part of her nightmare — she knows intimately the high stakes of small interactions.
The frantic investigation of the present relents in chapters describing Paloma’s time at the “Little Miracles Girls’ Home.” These moments bring an atmosphere of comparable calm and steadiness. We meet Paloma and Lihini on the eve of the visit from Mr. and Mrs. Evans, friends of the home’s main financial supporter, and the entire home contending with the welcome disruption of a visit from the network of foreign donors who sustain it.
Nothing is immediately amiss at the home. The kind and meticulously dressed director, whom the girls call “Perera sir,” has recently suffered a devastating loss, and the girls worry about their future when they age out of Little Miracles. But these are not unexpected struggles, especially for people orbiting an orphanage. Paloma, waiting in formation to welcome the Evanses, meditates on the home, telling us:
We have donors from charities from all over the world visit us. Not all the time, but it happens. Miss Chandra always tell us how lucky we are that Perera sir is so good at telling everyone about our home. I suppose she’s right. Our home isn’t much like the orphanages we read about that starved children, or beat them. We’ve always had a string of well-wishers. They’ve brought us all the Enid Blyton books, and all the Penguin Classics. They’ve given us art equipment, and last year, we got a brand-new swing set. The donors from Colombo even invite us to their homes for their children’s birthday parties and concerts.
Of course, we are wrong. Nothing is as it seems and the slow reveal of the secret danger of the home makes the reader, as much an outsider as the foreign donors, complicit in writing off indications of harm as necessary evils of a resource-strapped charity.
We are forgiven for our complicity, in part, because the world of safety Paloma and Lihini have built together provides real protection. Paloma and Lihini share everything; crumb fried pastries, a T-shirt with the word “Barbie,” spelled in sparkling letters, their favorite works of classic literature. The two even share the nickname, sudhu, a Sinhalese word and designation of honor for people with fair skin.
The relationship between the twin sudhus reflects the extent to which My Sweet Girl builds itself around doubles, especially those connected by their opposition: angels and demons, heaven and hell, disappearances and apparitions. The novel plays with the boundaries between opposites through key reversals. Escape plans become traps. Sanctuaries of refuge become arenas for reckoning.
At Little Miracles, the friendship between Paloma and Lihini begins to fray as a result of a curse traced to an incident when they steal away to visit an off-limits file room and break a mirror belonging to the director’s late wife. Paloma breaks the hand mirror in the process of comparing her face to the sole photograph of her mother, and Lihini cuts her hand cleaning up the shards. The tragedy of this moment stems not from a broken mirror or a cut hand, but from Paloma’s understandable hunger for connection based on a particular kind of proof.
Paloma’s search for belonging in the cordoned-off storage room, filled with both cold, hard proof (birth certificates, signed letters) and ghosts (belongings of a dead woman, photos of lost mothers) contrasts with the way Paloma eventually finds belonging with Mrs. Evans, her future adopted mother.
Mrs. Evans meets Lihini and Paloma on her visit to the home and eventually decides to adopt Paloma. When Perera sir breaks the news of adoption to Paloma, he relays that Mrs. Evans felt a special connection to Paloma when she saw Paloma reading her favorite novel, Wuthering Heights. Of the few words Mrs. Evans exchanges with Paloma on their visit, she remarks on Paloma’s and Lihini’s fair skin and shows surprise at their reading level. Mrs. Evans contrives a connection with Paloma through symbols that elide interrogation.
Importantly to the novel, international adoption generates many official documents concerned with identity, mapping networks of relationships, and defining future access to land and money. This extensive structure of paperwork, built on Mrs. Evan’s fake claim to connection with Paloma, is also all smoke and mirrors. The origin of their connection indicates that a relationship that generates a lot of important documents is deceptively empty at its core.
Maybe I am being too hard on Mrs. Evans. Paloma describes her as “[s]traight-up Glinda, the Good Witch of the North,” and she wins the title, “Angel in the Bay,” for her charitable endeavors. But even Paloma, while persuading us that her mother is supernaturally good, can’t help to add that her mom “always referred to Africa like it was a country” and “never could remember the orphan’s names” she received accolades for supporting.
Mrs. Evan’s racist and classist hang-ups notwithstanding, Wuthering Heights is important to My Sweet Girl, as both are ghost stories. The girls at Little Miracles scare each other with the story of “Vana-Mohini” or “Mohini.” A Sri Lankan folktale, in the iteration told by the girls at Little Miracles, Mohini is a woman with blood under her talon-like nail, who walks at night, only revealing herself to people who are all alone.
At times noir, psychological thriller, and ghost story, the figure of Mohini connects the novel across time and genre. Mohini in the present points to Paloma’s internal distress and the difficulty of investigating a murder in which evidence and victims tend to vanish. In the past, the story of Mohini provides a space for the girls to work out the contours of the powerful forces at play around them.
According to the girls’ telling, Mohini appears when people are all alone. As terrifying as Mohini is, telling her story is the best way to keep her at bay. In fact, it is when adults settle the matter — when they disprove her existence once and for all — that Mohini strikes most ferociously. The story of Mohini is then also a type of cipher, a warning against people intent on resolving the impossible. Everyone is wrong about Mohini, but being wrong in dialogue is safer than being certain alone.
In the end, My Sweet Girl offers little in the way of repair, redemption, or feel-good anything. But the horror of the ending allows for answers that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The novel crafts a clear argument that the world of white humanitarianism, as represented by Mrs. Evans, requires that chosen recipients be interchangeable, singularly unique, or disappear as needed. Paloma and Lihini’s friendship, the one relationship that can both bear the reality of the girls’ dire circumstances and offer ordinary joy, the one space where they can understand themselves as both distinct and connected, quite literally cannot be recognized by the institutions they also need to access. Not only can Paloma and Lihini’s friendship not be expressed through the documents that are keys to future material survival, but the logic of white humanitarianism destroys it, separating the girls and forcing them to compete. In the end, the girls make a choice between surviving on paper and surviving in practice.
Rachel Jackson lives in El Paso, Texas and works as a legal advocate defending clients in deportation proceedings.