All The Books I Can Read

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Review: A Very Large Expanse Of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

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.

8/10

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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Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi

Juliette is 17 and hasn’t touched anyone for 264 days. For that time, she’s been locked in a tiny concrete cell. She hasn’t seen anyone, she hasn’t spoken to anyone. She is let out for a few minutes to shower. If she’s lucky she’s fed more than once a day.

The last time she touched someone, she killed them. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t mean to, that it was an accident. To touch Juliette skin to skin is death – everyone knows it. Her parents have abandoned her, glad they no longer have to acknowledge the monstrosity they brought into the world.

Then all of a sudden, Juliette gets a cellmate. Adam whom she remembers from when she was a little girl, one of the only people that was kind to her even though they didn’t actually speak. He didn’t taunt her though and he looked at her nicely and for Juliette, who craved anything other than scorn and hatred, that was enough. Now Adam is all grown up and a soldier for the Reestablishment, the organisation that control everything.

The Reestablishment want Juliette for her ‘special’ skill. They think they can use that, harness it, to their advantage. Warner, the beautiful and  charismatic one in charge of where they are doesn’t understand that Juliette doesn’t want to hurt people. He thinks he can bend her to his will, because he gets what he wants. Allowed more leeway than others because they value her for her talent, Juliette refuses to do as he asks, refuses to like him as he seems to want her to do. In her world there is only Adam – Adam from her childhood, Adam who was nice to her, Adam who is nice to her, Adam whom she wants to touch her.

Juliette and Adam know they have to flee the compound where they are. Juliette can only get away with defying and resisting Warner and his demands for so long – he’s proved that he can force her into using her gift if he wants and that frightens her. Adam can’t leave without Juliette and won’t stay behind if she goes even though it’s dangerous and to be caught is a certain death for him and a terrible consequence for Juliette, who is still valuable to the ’cause’ of the Reestablishment.

Shatter Me, like The Daughter of Smoke and Bone that I read recently, had a lot of hype about it. A huge amount. Sometimes this works in a books favour, sometimes all it does is make you expect something phenomenal and bring you back to Earth with a resounding thump when all you get is something mediocre.

So ouch.

It hurt my brain to read Shatter Me. At first the repetitive prose repetitive prose repetitive prose works and the strikethrough lines are good too, as you can imagine Juliette writing these things and then crossing them out as she’s not supposed to think them. But then both of those tools and the disjointed, fractured narrative and the often weirdly spaced text on the page goes from being an aid to frankly, being a huge distraction. I got sick of repeating things in my head because it appeared three times in a row on the page. It took away from the story because every time it happened I’d be pulled out of the story and have to refocus.

Which brings me to the story. At least this novel, billed as a dystopian actually is one given this Reestablishment bizmo in control are going around shooting people in the head and rationing everything and fooling the greater population into thinking things like animals don’t exist anymore because they’re extinct. But the world building – where is it? How did the Reestablishment come into being? How did the starvation start? What country are they in? Was there any resistance? Juliette claims to remember SUV’s and identifies a banana in a way that makes me think she hasn’t eaten one in her life, maybe only seen it years ago, but how long did it take the Reestablishment to take over completely? What year are we in? How was technology developed for the food that a character consumes later in the book? I need answers! I can’t read a book and be told ‘people starved and died, a group took over and control everything, that’s the way it is, the end!’. What happened to governments? How were so many governments/countries/people overtaken?

For a girl who can’t be touched because it’ll cause death, and who hasn’t so much as spoken to anyone in about nine months and hasn’t really had a friend or anything like that her whole life, when Adam is dumped into her cell she wastes no time fantasising about his hands all over her, all of the time. I get the whole teenagers have urges thing but Juliette is so painfully repressed and suppressed that it doesn’t seem likely she’d be all over lusting madly over Adam with the whole touch me touch me touch me screaming through her at every single second of every single minute of every single hour they’re in the same room.

Adam’s eyes are midnight blue. We get it.

We finish the book with only more questions than when we started as the last quarter of the book skews off in a new direction so now not only are there unanswered questions about society and the Reestablishment but now there are a whole new bunch of unanswered questions involving the new development of the plot. And I use the term ‘development’ loosely as it kind of just pops up with no real lead up or foreshadowing at all. The reader also learns little to nothing about what is probably the most important part of the book – Juliette’s ‘quirk’ or ‘gift’ in that her touch can kill people (but apparently not all people). There’s little to no speculating on how/why this has occurred or what it is that causes the pain and eventual death.

Does Shatter Me have a promising premise? Yes. Could it have been an amazing story? Yes. Could I really have gotten on board with the characterisation and romance, had it been less about the crazy obsession and more about building it up from a mutual childhood fascination/crush? Yes. Unfortunately it’s only coulda, woulda, shoulda for this book for me. It fell far, far of the mark.

3/10

Book #178 of 2011

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