After having fairly good luck with the Muslim YA Romance Novel Genre in An Acquaintance and Saints and Misfits, I was willing to give She Wore Red Trainers a try. Na’ima B. Robert has written a lot of books and this 261 page book was an easy and entertaining read. There are no plot twists, deep thoughts, or intense drama, its a light read that infuses religion and environment into a story that will be great for 14-16 year olds that have slim pickings of relevant, Islamic, “halal” fiction options.
The story is told from two 18-year-olds’ perspectives, Ali and Amirah. It goes back and forth and while the perspective is obvious, the bottom of the page identifies the character so there is no chance for confusion.
Ali has begrudgingly moved to London with his brothers and father. Not very religious before his mother’s death, he and his father and younger brother have made a new start and commitment to Islam since losing her to cancer. The middle brother, resists this, but isn’t too critical in the story, other than to add a voice to the concept that people have to come to Islam on their own, that the relationship between a person and Allah is not cookie cutter or often simple.
Amira too has a past and a lot on her plate as she strives to balance her chaotic family life and moving past decisions of her rebellious self. The two meet and in the brief second before gazes are lowered, they fall in love. Ok, so it isn’t that cliche’ but it is close.
The two, as the dedication of the book states, “are striving to keep it halal.” They have a few encounters and the sparks are there, but they both have their own stories and supporting cast of friends as well. It isn’t until the very end, SPOILER, they get married.
Yup. impromptu wedding of 18 year olds. It isn’t out of left field though, there are passages that contemplate the Islamic merits of a young marriage, and perhaps that is the depth of the book, as far as giving the reader something to think about. That and choosing Islam and actively living it.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The stuff that makes the book interesting, isn’t really even the two love birds, it is the context. The struggle of Amirah’s complex family situation with a mom that has had multiple husbands, and is suffering from depression. Amirah also has a creepy stepdad (makes her uncomfortable and seems to make sexual advances toward her) and a sketchy past that isn’t really articulated but is hinted at enough to know that she did rebel briefly by running away and experimented with drugs and alcohol before realizing it wasn’t the life she wanted. She takes tremendous care of her younger siblings, one who is deaf, and respects her older brother tremendously. Her friends are not overly developed but provide enough diversity that the reader will see themselves in someone even if just fleetingly.
Similarly Ali is fleshed out by the company he keeps. He has very religiously devout friends, a few rebellious ones and countless opportunities to define who he is. His home life is a little chaotic, but they’ve gone through the destruction and are in the rebuilding phase.
I like that the characters are fallible and represent a wide spectrum of religiosity. The book isn’t political, nor does it discuss culture really, but it is meant for Muslim readers. The characters throw in Arabic terms and while there is a glossary at the back, the religious rules, the contemplation of hadith and ayats, understanding Islamic divorce and the stress to be well established before marriage make it a book for those that can relate. I love that part of keeping it halal is that they don’t talk and text. I know that makes it a bit unbelievable, but I like that the line is drawn and established.
I wish that the past of many of the characters was clearer. Not overly sensationalized, but a tiny bit more. I wanted more information on what Ali’s dad’s new job was, and how far away they would be moving. I wanted to know how Amira’s family would manage without her and the creepy stepdad, would the mom be able to step up and care for her kids. I wanted more details about Amira’s family in general and why her older brother had to leave his studies permanently in Saudi Arabia, and wasn’t able to just delay graduation.
I can’t criticize the writing too much because I did read the book in one sitting and it kept my interest. I didn’t expect it to be deep or thought provoking, so for a light summer read, it was good enough. I felt like the ending was a bit rushed, and yes there are some far fetched ideas, but I think it’s a romance novel, halal or not, so yeah, there are going to be some places that forgiveness is needed.
There is mention of hooking up, drug and alcohol use, virginity, and a creepy sexual predator in the stepdad. It isn’t appropriate for middle school, but not so vulgar that one would need to be 18 to read. I think high schoolers won’t find it too cheesy, and not be shocked by the content either. Granted it depends on the reader. but I think it is better to be safe than sorry.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would consider the book for a high school book club. Might have to get parental permission, but I think it works well to consider how to have it all so to speak. How to live within Islam and be smart about your choices. The book doesn’t offer a lot to think about and mull over, but if you were a teenager, I would imagine that the book presents a lot of what you are feeling. There is a lot to relate to in the friends, the deen, the emotions, and the temptations. It also shows that just because families are Muslim, doesn’t mean that they are not complicated and troubled, a scenario that many would find reassuring at least superficially in the book.
Interview with the Author: http://www.kubepublishing.com/an-interview-with-naima-b-robert-about-her-forthcoming-book-she-wore-red-trainers/