Nine-year-old Meena Kumar's cheeky narrative of her life as the only Punjabi girl in a small English village unfolds through wonderfully evocative description. Tollington, a once-thriving Midlands mining village, is, in the early '70s, on the decline. When the mines shut down, the men are idled while the town's suddenly assertive women form the Ballbearings Committee, a name to designate their employment at the local factory (among other things). A highway threatens to take away part of the village, the grammar school is closing down, skinheads are beginning to loiter in the kiddie park, and suburban sprawl is inching closer. These ominous changes form the background of the inventive Meena's life. She is alternately amused and embarrassed by her family and idolizes the roughest, brassiest girl in town, Anita Rutter. Meena is, much to her parents' chagrin, no angel: She lies, commits minor thefts, and has the bad habit of making vulgar remarks when her prim and proper aunties are around. Each small incident that Meena tells about leads to an arsenal of vividly described related anecdotes before the linear narrative is finally regained, a process that forms an endearing, richly three-dimensional picture of Meena and her family. Meanwhile, the story of the girl's relationship with Anita nicely illuminates the difficult, unspoken politics of childhood friendship. The two girls lead a gang, bully others, and engage in exuberant antics even though, in an increasingly poor and tense England, there is always an ominous undercurrent to events. Anita's black poodle is named ""Nigger,"" a local Indian bank manager is the victim of a racial attack, and Meena's secret love becomes a boot-stomping skinhead. Meena's loss of innocence, and her recognition of her heritage, coincides with her realization that her seemingly harmonious village also harbors violence, hatred, and fear. Syal handles all of this with an expert hand. Far from just another coming-of-age saga, Syal's impressive debut offers a charming yet troubling evocation of recent times.