This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable. Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for. As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.
Nima feels like she exists in pieces. No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin. At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it. She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public. At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither. Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known. Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world. Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead. If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.
When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret. It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger). I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated. The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book. I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.
There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it. Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.
There is physical assault, theft, lying. Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel. Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married. There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor. There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality. I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.
Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led
Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/