I am admittedly late to the Tahereh Mafi fan club, and to rectify that I checked out all her books from the library (There’s quite a few). Yeah, I have four kids and not a ton of time, so I decided to start reading Whichwood thinking then I could review it here due to it’s jacket claiming “Persian Fantasy,” plus noticing characters having names tinged with Islamic culture: Benyamin, Roksana, and Laylee Layla Fenjoon. So, while I guessed the 368 AR 7.5 wouldn’t have anything Islamic, I figured it would at least give Muslim kids a taste of themselves in some of the words and representation by the hijab wearing author. And I think I was right.
Laylee is a mordeshoor, which means she is responsible for caring for the dead and moving them to the next world. Its hard physical work, and since her Maman has passed away and her Baba has gone a bit crazy, the grueling job is left to her. She is desperately tired and overworked and behind, and the people of the town, Whichwood, abuse and ridicule her relentlessly. Laylee’s world is a frozen wonderland filled with odd characters and occurrences and magic of all random and gruesome sorts. Two children, Oliver and Alice, from a different magical land show up unexpectedly to help Laylee with her burden, but Laylee is not well and is on the verge of death, and their help is not initially wanted. As Laylee starts to die, it will take her living friends, with their variety of magical gifts to bring her back to life, and the dead ghosts that she can speak with, to help her live a life worth enjoying.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that Rumi is mentioned and quoted. I love that words such as hamam and halva are tossed in, it gives flavor to a book that doesn’t need it, but is enhanced by it none-the-less. The world created is so bizarre, that I was pleasantly surprised how the author kept the descriptions from becoming confusing albeit at times circular and tedious, the book starts out slow, but speeds up as you progress. The narrator is telling the tale, and speaks often directly to the reader, which is a literary device that one doesn’t see that often in YA books, and I really enjoyed it. It kept the book inline and avoided plot holes, as the narrator could just tell you how she knew and keep the timeline of the story intact.
The characters are amazing. Laylee is 13 and on her own, washing and scrubbing and pulling nails out of corpses before burying them in the frozen earth. All while being harassed by the ghosts around her. She has dropped out of school, the community doesn’t even pay her financially or with respect for the work she does, and yet she plugs along. The reader wants to feel sorry for her, but there isn’t time, there is a lot going on. Alice’s magic is she can color the world, and Oliver has the gift of persuasion. Benyamin, Laylee’s closest neighbor on the peninsula, has insects and spiders that live in him and that he can communicate with. His ailing mother can speak with whales, and rides inside them as a form of transport. Yeah, it’s a bit nuts. And because it is so fantastic, at times the story isn’t predictable or even really seeming to move to a clear climax, there is just so much to take in.
I don’t really even know what to critique in terms of what I wish I would have seen or felt was lacking because there was no expectation. The book is a companion book to Furthermore, which I think I will do as later as an audio book with my kids. Perhaps once I read that one I’ll know more about Oliver and Alice’s gifts as the book is about them, as I do have some lingering questions about their whimsical abilities and backstories. I would have also like a bit more on the mordeshoors, how they are trained, when they marry what enchantments that entails etc. Seems like the concept in its most basic form could have benefitted from a little more detail.
The book is dark, and there is some darkness in Laylee, and I think that is what makes me like her as a character. There are some emotions that she really has to work through, and I like that it is fuzzy and messy, I think the target audience of the book will really identify with some of Laylee’s internal struggles. The heart of the book is solid and is very grounded in reality even with all the fantasy on the surface. I love that Laylee isn’t affected by what other’s expect her to be, there is amazing strength in this being brought to the forefront. Also, the crystallization of giving someone what they need, not what you think they need is a lesson that will hopefully linger in the readers.
The book could be seen as grotesque, but I didn’t find it overly icky, I think middle school and up will be perfectly ok with all the death. Oliver is completely star struck and in love with Laylee and her beauty. But, the book hints only at a future romance. Similarily, Benyamin and Alice might have a future, but it isn’t mentioned more than a crush and isn’t dwelled on or annoying to the action of dead bodies coming out of their graves or anything like that.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Author’s Website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/
A youtube review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgwtFqiFIi0