Anything I write about this YA book will fail miserably in conveying how powerful, beautiful, lingering, moving, emotional, and overall masterfully written every one of the 432 pages are; it just might be my favorite book of the year. I do know that this will be my new standard for Muslim OWN voice stories, as the authenticity was absolutely engulfing, I’m not Syrian and I could feel it and naturally, I also verified it. There is no pandering to a western gaze, the story and characters pull you in and show you Syria from the ground, there is no telling, there is no lecturing, it is mesmerizing storytelling at its finest. The book has mental health issues, war, and a sweet “halal” romance, that I think upper YA, 16 plus, can handle and appreciate. I hope every adult will spend time with this book, it truly is incredibly well done, alhumdulillah.
Homs is under the protection of the Free Syrian Army, but that isn’t enough to keep pharmacy student Salama and her family safe. Her mother is killed, her father and brother taken, and so she moves in with her best friend Layla, her pregnant sister-in-law, her only family left. Working as a doctor in the hospital where anyone remaining is given responsibilities far above their skill level, education, and experience- every day is a struggle to survive.
Haunted by the physical manifestation of her fear, “Khawf,” who urges her to fulfill her promise to her brother of keeping Layla safe and getting them out of the country, Salama at eighteen years old has to find a way.
Before all the pieces come together to escape, a boy enters the picture, Kenan, who gives Salama hope, who distracts her from the death and destruction that has consumed their lives. A boy unwilling to leave his beloved homeland.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I’m a crier, but this book brought out ugly angry tears, shocked tears, heartbroken tears, sentimental tears, you get the point, this book held me in its grasps and never let go. I.COULDN’T. PUT. IT. DOWN. If this is the author’s debut novel I can’t even fathom what is yet to come.
I love that the characters are Muslim, and that they pray together, that they plead with Allah (swt) and meet at the mosque. It is who they are, it is not up for debate or in need of explanation, it is what it is and it is not anything to discuss. The parts where a character pleads with Allah for death over being taken, absolutely wrecked me. Just as efforts to keep everything halal between Salama and Kenan made me beam. (If I’m completely honesty, I did on occasion get frustrated, I mean come on they are being shot at, bombed, nearly sexually assaulted, scoop her up in your arms and console, her, I know haram, but it is fiction and I was invested, and there is a war. Thankfully, I am not an author and she kept it all clean and her characters much stronger and mindful of the shortness of this world.)
I love that there are political voices, but that it isn’t a political book trying to give back story to the conflict. In so many ways the news has failed to keep a light shining on Syria and books such as this, remind those of us outside Syria without strong connections to the land, that the conflict is still raging. If this was a journalistic article it would be a human interest piece, it is character driven. Readers see themselves in the characters that live lives that most of us of privilege could never imagine, yet here we are spellbound by the characters, their choices, their dreams, and their safety. This book shows the power of fiction in opening our eyes to the horrors that are happening in our time, by giving us a face and a character to care so deeply about, that we are spurred to action and determined to not remain apathetic.
Death, torture, physical abuse, sexual assault, fear, loss, coercion, war, murder, torture, child abuse, crimes against humanity, starvation, mental health, PTSD.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would love to use this book in a high school book club. The story and themes of the book would open themselves up to discussion so effortlessly and the beauty of the writing would be a gift to share with students.