The hype is correct: this book is moving, impactful, powerful, reflective, all the feels. The writing superb, the plot gritty, the characters seem real, so real. One of my all time favorite authors is John Irving because every word seems deliberate in his books, not every plot point or every paragraph, every. single. word. And it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that strikes me in that same vein of the author being so in control of the story, and my (the reader’s) emotions being so completely at the mercy of the words to come. I think I could read this book five more times and each time peel back a new layer and see something I hadn’t seen, or understood, or felt before. I cried, I cheered, I sighed and unclenched my jaw, and I am still haunted by the lives of the characters. Not just the “main” ones. All of them, they all are real and fleshed out and have character arcs and live in shades of gray. There are no checkboxes for skin tone or religion or sexual preference they each are more than a label, they are complex and real. I could easily be convinced that they are in fact real people and that their world and stories are not fiction at all. That is how well it reads, that is how hard it is to close the window on the world they let us see. The book is YA (374 pages) and with the drugs, abuse, alcohol, relationship, complexities of it all, I would think 16 year old’s and up can, strike that, should, read this book. The characters are Muslim, but it never even goes near being preachy, these are complex characters and stories, and remarkably there is no internalized Islamophobia or watering anything down, each character deals with faith, like everything else, in their own way.
The story bounces between the past in Lahore, Pakistan and the present in Juniper, California. In Lahore it is Misbah’s story and in the desert it is her son’s, Salahudin and a girl she has taken under her wing, Noor’s. When the book starts we see Sal with a drunk father dropping him off at school where his girlfriend is waiting, and his best friend, Noor, not speaking to him for the last few months after she confessed to bein in love with him. Noor lives with her uncle after her entire village in Pakistan was destroyed when she was 6, and he wants nothing to do with Pakistan, Islam, or Noor going to college. He owns a liquor store and makes Noor work there. Sal’s mom is sick and has always been there for Noor, so when she takes a turn for the worse, Noor and Sal are brought back together, Noor’s uncle is enraged that she is missing shifts, and Sal’s father is constantly searching for the bottom of a bottle. Things are bad, but they are about to get a whole lot worse. Sal’s mom dies, the motel Sal’s family owns is in severe debt and the options for saving it are less than ideal. The small town starts to feel familiar as everyone’s stories are fleshed out in Juniper and Lahore and two star-crossed narrators are forced to confront both the stresses of high school and impending adulthood, and deep, dark realities of abuse, loss, and generational trauma.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book could have been a thousand pages, and it still would have felt too short. Much like her fantasy writing, the book seems to start with world building and roping the reader in to thinking that they can handle what is about to come, then much like a band-aid being pulled off, the pain hits, and the wound starts bleeding again. Somehow despite it all, you can’t look away, you can’t stop reading, there is hope. Hope for the characters, hope for happy endings, hope for survival and peace.
I absolutely love the quality of writing, things dangled early on, come back, often with subtly and restraint that you could easily miss them. When discussing the book with @muslimmommyblog, I felt like we both were finding threads we had possibly not considered and connections that added nuance and staying power to the plot.
So often, the more religious a character in literature is, the stricter they are presented, the less kind they are seen, but in this book it was the opposite, the loving couple were the imam and his defense attorney wife, the glue that radiated kindness to Sal, Noor, and so much of the town is a hijab wearing strong woman. So many tropes and stereotypes were uprooted, tossed aside, and reimagined. There is compassion for a Muslim alcoholic, a liquor store being the employment of a Muslim, consequences for dealing drugs, yet nothing “haram” is really ever glorified, it is gritty and repulsive, but there is no judgement, there is only understanding and sadness. Palpable despair that rattles your bones and makes you wish the world was different.
I don’t want to spoil the book, I was able to read it largely not knowing what the plot would delve in to. In many ways the trigger warning at the beginning was the only thing that braced me for what was to come. The level of religion and how it was woven is through the gentleness of some of the characters and hatred of others, was expertly done. There are not ayats in the Quran quoted or speeches given, there is love, and faith and hope that manifest as duas and longing and finding ways to be Muslim in action, not just in appearance. When the characters start to make-out their Islamic conscious is drawn in, when they grapple with their hope and future- trust in something bigger is considered. It is not a Muslim book, not even an Islam centered book, perhaps Muslamic, but really about characters who are Muslim and dealing with the cards they have been dealt.
Alcohol use, drug use, relationships, kissing, touching, longing, language, physical assault, physical violence, domestic violence, hate, racism, stereotyping, Islamophobia, there are mentions of a lesbian relationship and a bi relationship, a child out of wedlock, death, addiction, sexual assault, repressed trauma, bullying, teasing, lying, music,
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I have a 15 year old daughter, and I probably will have her read the book this summer, I think there is a lot to discuss and I think in the right hands the book could be used for a high school book club.