All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: A Very Large Expanse Of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

A Very Large Expanse Of Sea
Tahereh Mafi
2018, 297p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.

If you’ve ever been curious what it might have been like being a young {female} Muslim in America in a post 9/11 world then Tahereh Mafi is here with the answer. This is set quite soon after 9/11 and the protagonist is a young woman, who moves around with her Iranian-born family quite often as their parents search for better opportunities. This lifestyle (and probably a combination of other factors) means that Shirin has never particularly developed close friendships and she tends to go through school not seeing or hearing anyone around her. She chooses to wear a headscarf (she isn’t required to, or forced to by her parents, it’s something she seems to have given a lot of thought to and has made that decision based on her own feelings) and in the time after 9/11 it’s basically a target on her back.

Despite being born in America, Shirin is told countless times to go back to where she came from. There are remarks, either oblique or outright made about terrorism, because every Muslim in the world must be the same, right? In class she is subjected to one particularly humiliating moment that the teacher attempted as a ‘leaning process’ but it’s grossly miscalculated and quite unprofessional. More than once her headscarf is the reason for physical violence and/or humiliation and the best people can do is shrug and say maybe you shouldn’t wear it.

For me, this book’s greatest strengths were in the family relationships and Shirin’s view of the world and her experiences. Shirin has a great relationship with her older brother and although it’s not explicitly discussed at length, it’s certainly obvious how her brother’s treatment by other students is different from what Shirin herself experiences. He makes friends easily it seems and mostly what seems to draw people’s attention is the fact that Shirin wears a headscarf. It doesn’t seem to be about her just being Muslim – but about her looking different, about her taking a symbol that white people believe oppresses women and having the audacity to wear it in public. She doesn’t seek to ‘fit in’ or conform and I think her lack of that is what makes her even more of her target. Not that it’s her fault at all – it lies with those who don’t bother to see past what she wears and ask her what it represents to her. And Shirin does experience some truly horrific behaviour from her fellow students and for the most part, there’s a blind eye turned. Shirin doesn’t even confide in her parents, who lived through times far more volatile and dangerous than a bit of high school bullying! She knows they wouldn’t be sympathetic. I found her parents quite refreshing – they are present within the book but not overly and although Shirin doesn’t enjoy the same freedom as her brother, as long as she’s with him, her parents don’t seem to keep too many tabs on her. They aren’t overly interested in the ins and outs of their children’s lives, save for the fact that they get good grades.

The romance in this was fine – I didn’t mind Ocean. At first I thought he wasn’t particularly deep (ironic) but as the book progressed and we learned more about him, he began to show a little more character and become something more than just a nice guy who smiled and wanted to get to know Shirin. I enjoyed the mixed race dynamic and the fact that it wasn’t particularly an issue for Shirin, who is quite blunt in saying no her parents won’t approve of him but not because he is white – simply because they wouldn’t approve of anyone. However we never really get Shirin’s parents reaction to it? Perhaps they never end up knowing. I liked the fact that her brother Navid was protective of her but not to the extent where he was like ‘no one will touch my sister’. His reaction to the drama surrounding Shirin and Ocean was actually quite amusing most of the time. And there is rather a lot of drama surrounding Shirin and Ocean. At times it felt like we were trapped in this cycle a bit too long – Shirin liking Ocean but backing off but liking him but backing off and oh gosh just put the guy out of his endless misery already. I also found the ending sort of believable but in a way also vague and bit unsatisfying? Like there could’ve been a bit more to the story?

I liked the way this made me think. I can’t imagine what life was like for Muslims in America – or even people that looked like they might be Muslims – but this was a good way to examine that and how some people reacted in ways that completely dehumanised the ‘other’. The behaviour in this book isn’t limited to other students either – adults are also some of the perpetrators for the most selfish reasons possible. And it’s 17 years since 2001 and this book is still applicable, with the Islamophobia and xenophobia that are still so prevalent today.

Also the breakdancing stuff was very fun – an unexpected and enjoyable part of the story.


Book #3 of 2019


I’m counting A Very Large Expanse Of Sea towards my Reading Women Challenge 2019. I’m ticking off category 24 – A YA title by a WOC. It’s the first category completed.

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