This 278 page magical realism YA book featuring a Muslim family grabs your attention and heart in the prologue, unfortunately it quickly releases it, and until you get over a third of the way in to the story, it is a struggle to read. Once you accept that half of the book, the storyline set in the present, is going to be terrible, you enjoy the historical narrative and appreciate that the short book with a quick pace spends more time in the subcontinent during partition, than it does with the painfully underdeveloped characters trying to make sense of past secrets and their present day manifestations. The book doesn’t have any major flags in terms of religious representation, it is just ritual acts of praying and reading Quran, nothing detailed or explored, and relationship-wise there is nothing high school readers can’t handle (spoilers and more details can be read in the FLAGS section). Despite being a first time author, she works as an editor, so one would really expect the climax to hit harder with clearer writing, the characters to be developed, the details written to serve a purpose, and the protagonist teen’s voice not to read overwhelmingly at the beginning as a five year old. The overall story concept and historical fiction component are exciting, the development of the characters just really failed an otherwise engaging read.
Maera’s brother Asad goes missing in 2011 from their grandfather’s home in Pakistan while they are visiting. They search and cannot locate him or a body, the loss devastates Maera’s family. Ten years later, her grandfather passes away, and the next morning a greenhouse appears in their backyard in America. Not just any greenhouse, her grandfather’s greenhouse from Pakistan. Maera thinks she is going crazy, her mother doesn’t acknowledge the structure, she doesn’t acknowledge much, not about the reality in front of them, not the night Asad disappeared, or the needs of her daughter. Maera’s aunt (mom’s twin) and cousin come from Pakistan to mourn the loss of the grandfather together, he passed in Pakistan, not sure why Maera and her mom didn’t go there, but I digress. Cousins Jamal, aka Jimmy, and Maera are the only two that seems determined to figure it all out. Their grandfather’s journal turns up and with Maera’s friend Sara and Rob, the neighbor and former best friend of Asad, the four of them set out to understand what is going on in the greenhouse.
The greenhouse seems to be alive, and entering it dependent on the whims of something within, a churail, a shape shifting creature of myth that is more than a witch, a succubus that targets men. A woman who died violently and was wronged by men, whose feet are turned backward, and who is neither alive or dead. As the four work through the journal, venture in to the greenhouse, and confront those within, secrets will be unearthed, exposed, and finally dealt with.
The historical interwoven story is that of the grandfather during colonial British rule and partition. As a young boy Haroon is searching for his father fighting in Burma and the adventures he has along the way. Shah Jehan’s father takes Haroon in at one point, and the girl with an emperor’s name sneaks him out to watch the village deal with the churail who are killing the men in their village. The incident scars Haroon, but his affection for Shah Jehan and the role she will continue to have in his life is established. The understanding that the subcontinent is being carved up and starved by the colonizers in the name of freedom is made clear in the characters that Haroon encounters and the quickly maturing boy grows in to a young man as he starts to understand the world around him and the larger powers at play. When the migration and violence between Hindus getting to India and Muslims going to Pakistan occurs, the pieces in the past and present come together to reveal the terrors that the greenhouse houses.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I loved the commentary both in the text, and explicitly detailed in the afterward about how culturally the past is handled. How little generations discuss what they have endured and been through. I have been asked by my father-in-law a few times to try and coax my mother-in-law to detail her journey with their oldest son from India to Pakistan. She has apparently never clearly told what happened, what she saw, and what they experienced. She waves it off now, but her own children didn’t even know there was more to the story, and as my inlaws approach their 90s I have little hope of them recalling or sharing their stories. Recently my son needed to hear some first person accounts of war, so he contacted my American grandfather to learn about his time in the Korean War, much of it I knew, Americans, generally speaking, talk about this type of experience in passing. My son, also wanted to compare his story to someone who lived as a civilian through a war, and asked my mother-in-law, his Dadi, about her experience living through the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, not that long ago, and we all sat spellbound as she recalled the sirens and how they kept the children fed and calm and whatnot. They were stories no one had thought to ask it seemed. She has seven children and almost thirty grandchildren. This book struck such a chord with me, I need to actively seek out these stories before it is too late. Chances are no one else in the family will. Not speaking the language fluently has cost me my chance to learn my own father’s family’s stories and I need to find a way to gather my husband’s family’s stories before it is too late. I love that in the book, The Past is capitalized as if it is a named living person shaping the lives of so many. It is, and these stories are wonderful reminders and motivators to ask the elders to share their memories.
The present day story thread, however, is chalked full of holes, one dimensional characters, and pointless tangents. Sara and Maera read like they are early elementary aged. They are so terribly voiced in the beginning, I have no idea, how an editor author and mainstream publisher did not require correction. The dialogue, the action, the role of the parents, it is terrible. Speaking of terrible, the mother and aunt are absolutely flat and useless. They mope, sleep and sit in the corner. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t develop them to link the past story to the present one. I’m not being picky here, it is that bad. I also wanted to know why the dad left. Seems like it would flesh out the mom a bit, justify her approach to life. Sara and Rob are obviously brought in to serve as vessels for the action, and for Maera and possibly Jimmy to play off of. But their backstories are so pathetic. How do you not know or see your neighbor for ten years. Ok, I get that he was Asad’s best friend and your family in their grief and denial pushed him away, but he never checked the mail or took out the trash, or was seen? And Sara offers absolutely nothing to the story other than to be part of the forced crush/romance line pairing off her and Jimmy and Rob and Maera. Alhumdulillah, it stays tame with the angsty longing and hand holding.
Random details that serve no purpose reach a pinnacle with the paragraph long time spent on Maera wearing Rob’s tank top. I have no idea why we should care that she is wearing a tank top. Sure as a Muslim reviewer it furthered the notion to me, that she is probably more culturally religious, and yes I know Muslim’s dress to different degrees of modesty, but I really couldn’t find any other reason for the emphasis on the black tank top. Overall, all the friendships in the story seem so off: Rob and Asad, and Sara and Maera. They should be easy plot points, but they don’t connect, or read believable.
Plot wise: if you had a building magically appear in your back yard along with a journal, would you not read that journal as fast as possible? Sure you would lose sleep and maybe skip a meal or two, but hello, a building just appeared in your back yard that is moving and growing, your grandfather died and your brother’s body was never found: stop what you are doing and read the journal. It mentions that when Asad went missing there were a lot of other kids, cousins at the house, so where are they now? Why was there no mention of them, and only Jimmy seems to have a vested interest in the grandfather passing, and the growing need to remember Asad. I did not understand the sacrifice and hair connection and how that was what Maera understand the Churail to be asking for. I did not understand the end of chapter entitled “The Separation,” it says they entered together, so…. ya?Off and on in the greenhouse there are multiple churail, this seems inconsistent with what we learn from the one churail about leaving. The whole climax needs a Cliff’s Notes synopsis. I honestly have no idea what happened. The churail was scared of the beast, but they all went off together, affectionately? I’m trying not spoil anything here. Why was the churail so different at the beginning compared to the end, why did she get a growth arc, when the other characters didn’t? Shouldn’t there have been some cathartic reprieve verbalized between the mom and SPOILER (sorry I tried) Asad? I felt deprived.
There were a few grammar errors, but because I read an ARC, I’m hoping they have been corrected
There is a little bit of language (F word at least once). Children are conceived, it isn’t explicit, but the fact that it happened is critical to the story. There are crushes, angsty/longing, hand holding, hugging. There is sexual assault implied as a major plot point, but not detailed. There is death, and killing, often gruesome, some real, (hits harder), some far fetched. The book is YA and ok for high school readers and up in my opinion.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would be interested in seeing if some of the muddled passages are cleaned up in the published physical copy, the book’s characters are weak, but the historical fiction component is a story that needs to be shared more and more as we, collectively, seek to understand the past, the impact of colonization, and the emergence of telling our OWN voice stories. For all the flaws, I haven’t completely written off the book, I’m hopeful that even if this one doesn’t make the cut for a book club, that inshaAllah the author will keep writing and filling in the blanks.