At 246 pages I’m not sure if this book would be classified as Young Adult, but I think it could be, as its message, focus and presentation makes it a valuable thought provoking read. And the cleanliness of everything being resolved so neatly might almost be too coincidental for older, more jaded readers, where I personally wasn’t too bothered by how much emotional action was packed in to the book and how quickly it was resolved as the characters were compelling and the pacing made it an enjoyable quick read.
The story follows two women, Reem and Leah as their very different worlds and circumstances come together when they move in to the same apartment building.
Reem is a Syrian refugee whose past is presented in bits and pieces as her fragmented memories surface in the story. She is searching for her 10 year old brother Adar, as well as trying to create a future for her self in London.
Leah has recently lost her husband, left her training as a doctor, and is trying to make a life for her and her son, Elijah, away from her parents’ shadow of expectation and demands.
When the two ladies meet, neither is completely settled or functioning, yet the desperation each is feeling causes Reem to ask for Leah’s help, and Leah agreeing. The two become friends as they share parts of their world with one another and slowly start to heal.
Then Reem’s secret pregnancy comes to light, her abusive husband finds her, Leah’s posh friends abandon her, and their apartment building, the tower, catches fire. Granted it doesn’t all happen that quick and there are lots of details that make their pasts, their friendship, and their goals for the future believable and inspiring, as well as making the pain for those lost in the fire emotionally wrenching.
As the two women once again try and survive hardship, this time together, they make progress before a terrorist attack on the mosque again sets them back. Through all these major plot points details about how Reem got to England, and the atrocities she suffered that her mind blocked out are made clear. Additionally, more about Leah and her families involvement in the tower fire and their friends’ involvement in human trafficking all tie the lose ends up. In the final pages there is hope and resilience and respect from the reader for the brave characters brought to life and their determination to persevere.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that it is a very personal, character driven story about a horrific fire, reminiscent of the Grenfell fire which claimed the lives of over 70 people. I also absolutely love how Islam is presented. The Muslim characters are tangibly real. Reem wants to fast because it is Ramadan, but has the excuse that she is pregnant, but tries anyway. She prays, she covers, she meets a Muslim that doesn’t cover, but they pray together at the mosque later and become great friends. Leah is interested in Islam and asks questions and when she cooks for her Muslim friends she gets halal meat. There is an amazingly helpful character Mo in the story who Leah is crushing on, but he refuses to be alone with her, or touch her, and when she tells him of her feelings, he says that everything she likes isn’t him it is his religion. Leah and Reem discuss how the sunnah’s of the Prophet influence Mo and his brother and it is quite detailed. Quranic ayats are quoted in character’s dialogues in natural presentations, not preachy or misplaced. It hints at the end, when Leah has joined Doctors Without Borders and is in the Middle East that perhaps she has taken shahada, but it isn’t a plot point and isn’t mentioned explicitly.
My biggest complaint about the book is the random foreshadowing that pulls out from the story to hint that something more is going to happen between certain characters or be of more importance later. I think it happened three times, and each time completely unnecessary. The story and characters and writing are clear and done well enough that needing the hint sells it all short and it wasn’t just annoying and irritating, it really kind of made me mad. Here I was feeling an attachment for a character or what they were experiencing only to be reminded that there will be more, rather than letting me go along for the ride with the character.
I also was bothered by the font and spacing. It is really tight on the pages, but with big margins, that a little breathing room would have been nice. So, much happens in the book, that I wanted to be able to relish in each event and often I felt the presentation made it rushed and I found myself skimming, more than I would have liked. I would have also liked to know what parts, if any, were based on or inspired by real events: the tower fire, human trafficking, stealing organs, artifacts coming out of Syria, refugee treatment in London, etc.
There are memories of war and dead bodies. The stealing of organs and dumping of bodies into the ocean. There is a lot of death after the fire and after the shooting at the mosque. There is a lot of blood, a terrorist act, a baby being delivered, a drunk man at a party. Nothing is overly sensationalized, but it is a gripping book with some intense moments.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I don’t know if middle school can handle the book, the characters are older, so it won’t resonate with them like a traditional YA book would, but I’m tempted to have my almost 13 year old read it so we can discuss. I will most definitely suggest it to the high school book club adviser as there is a ton to discuss and relate to in this action packed book.
Author’s website and Q and A: https://shereenmalherbe.com/