This highly praised British young adult novel is intense. If I was trying to sell you the book I would say that it is relevant, gritty, raw, and real, but as a reviewer, it is definitely more rough, all over the place, and random. There is so much going on in the book that it should be well over 400 pages to resolve it all, but almost as if the publisher required that the book be less than 200 to fit the demographic, it all gets tied up way too simplistically and leaves dozens of tangents unresolved, unexplored, and hanging. The main characters are 14 years old, but I think it is a bit too harsh for that age group and should probably not be read by them.
Karen’s mom doesn’t believe in God but takes her to church. Karen’s dad is a Pakistani Muslim who loves bacon and beer. The book opens with Karen’s gang marking her forehead with a cross against her will, and her soon after deciding that she doesn’t fit in with her friends and will now be Muslim. Part of this transformation involves her wanting her name pronounced properly, as Kiran and her wearing a hijab. Her parents are pretty ok with the decision, but the author foreshadows that this will be the undoing of her family.
The book gets crazy, like all over the place crazy, but because of the little hints that all this craziness is leading up to something, I kept reading thinking that the author had it under control. But no, I don’t think he does or did.
The most craziness comes from Kiran’s rival Shamshad who leads another gang and pretends to be really religious, but is a bit of a rebel and bully herself. The author is told from both Kiran and Shamshad’s perspectives, and while at times the reader sympathizes with Shamshad, as her influential father is abusive, many of her actions are so jarring and awkward, that no, she isn’t really like-able at all. She wants a computer, her parents are that strict, yet she goes out with a guy, gets drunk, hangs all over him, goes to a Halloween party/dance without seeming to have to sneak about doing it. She is regularly beating people up, threatening to kill and maim people with scissors, not a nice 14-year-old, nor a believable one either.
As Kiran tries to learn about Islam and figure out what is tearing her family apart, and Shamshad is trying to find her place, the two storylines come closer together before the big climax of learning what tied the two girls’ families together in Pakistan and then here in the same English neighborhood. The climax/ point of the story is actually a good one, but the resolution of it, is so simplistic that it cheats the reader of any potential investment they may have skimmed from the crazy build up. It seems like the author had an idea and just worked backward for his big reveal, which is probably how most books are written, but in good books, you connect with the character and join them in their journey, here there is no character connection.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like the idea of the book. That there are good and bad Muslims and Christians, that things are diverse and complicated and that we all have our own baggage either at home, or in our heritage, or in our environment. But the book is not cohesive, the characters are really, really harsh. And it doesn’t seem the author gets their voices right. Plenty of males write beautiful complex female characters and vice versa, and plenty of adults get teens right, but I don’t think this author got either. The girls are not believable and the minor characters are just as bizarre.
I think if you you live in a highly diverse area and you are acquainted with lots of minorities you can handle the way Islam is portrayed, but if you aren’t I think both Muslim and non Muslim readers alike will be shocked and offended by the portrayal of such crude characters. This isn’t a book of accepting differences and finding a way to get along, it is more of a book showing how awful everyone is in varying degrees. If it was an adult book perhaps you could argue it is realistic, but as a teen book, I think the lifestyle choices of all the characters will be eye-opening and not necessarily in a good way. I do like that the book isn’t offering a moral statement or opinion on Islam, but the way Islam is presented isn’t inspiring either.
I’ll admit I’m a sucker for books that are meticulous, not boring, but deliberate. Authors like John Irving who seem to map their stories with crime solving precision. Where every sentence serves a purpose and every idea has a reason for being shared. Most books leave something hanging, but this book, left everything hanging.
For two girls in gangs, the gang members by and large fade away before we even get to know them. There is a rally being planned but resolved half heartedly. Kiran has to fight with her parents to learn about herself in a really unrealistic way. Kiran harasses her dad to learn about Islam, but then all of a sudden her paternal grandpa lives nearby and brings over a marriage proposal, why couldn’t she ask him about Islam, and why would a 14 year old be considering marriage? The whole scene of Kiran getting a hijab is weird and pointless, why stress underwear and having another customer make a random comment for no reason. What was the obsession with swimming for Shamshad and her mother, like there is a lot of space dedicated to this topic, and I don’t really get it. Shamshad’s dad is also creepy, he seems to have a decent relationship with her, but is physically abusive to her mom, and he does a weird inappropriate thing with a pointer stick to Kiran at the masjid, that should be discussed more in my opinion.
Once the big reveal happens really there are more questions than answers. Like I still don’t get why the families hate each other, if they had to make promises of secrecy in Pakistan, couldn’t they just ignore and be ambivalent to one another in England? Why so much hate and hostility? And what is up Jake? He seems like a good friend that makes some mistakes and Kiran is awful toward him, then all of a sudden she claims him as a brother. And whats up with him going on and on about his brother in the military, I need closure! And last but not least why when Kiran’s mom is in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt, why does the Curry Club, that no one in the book ever liked, suddenly in the hospital room with them, when it should be a tender mother-daughter moment? Seriously, I was beyond annoyed. There should have been a message, or a cathartic release, not annoying super side characters coming back for no reason.
Lots of violence, alcohol, language. There are also romantic relationships and the celebration of Halloween.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t know that I would recommend this book to anyone. I am willing to concede that some of it was lost in translation for me, but there is so much going on in the book that there is no way that it can excuse it all. I would love to discuss some of my concerns with someone who has already read it though. So feel free to reach out, I’m all ears.