The premise of this book is amazing, the writing and execution of it, unfortunately, falls flat. The failure to set the stage, develop characters the reader cares about, and create a world in the near future that is both riveting and horrifying doesn’t come through in the book’s 387 pages written on an AR 4.7, but meant for high school aged readers grade nine and up.
Indian-American Layla Amin is 17 and since the census that her family honestly filled out and identified themselves as Muslim, their life under the new president has been shattered to say the least. Her poet father lost his job as a professor, her chiropractic mother has lost numerous patients, Layla has left high school and they all live in fear. With curfews and people they’ve known their whole lives turning on them openly, the book opens with Layla chooses to sneak off to see her Yemeni Jewish boyfriend, David after curfew. The next day suits arrive to take the family to an internment camp in the desert, near the old Manzanar detention camp used to house Japanese Americans during WWII.
The new camp, Mobius, is the first one to house Muslims and the first of many slated to be built. The detainees are divided by ethnic background, Layla’s FEMA trailer is in a block of other Desi families, Arabs a few blocks away, LatinX, converts, etc., all given minders to control them from within their own community. As Layla whines about her cell phone being taken away and how much she misses David, a guard, Jake, takes pity on her and regularly risks his own position and Layla’s, as he sneaks her access to phones, gets her burner cell phones and even sneaks David in so the two can make out. Somewhere along the way it seems Jake and Layla develop feelings for each other, but it really isn’t explored. Layla makes friends and somehow becomes a revolution leader with her writing notes about life on the inside and having Jake and David get them to the media.
Those that speak out against their situation or complain, disappear and never return. The Director of Mobius, ensures it. In their refusal to eat dinner one night, and their protest at the front gate in front of protestors and the media, eventually Layla gets taken, but with her friendly guards, she finds she isn’t completely alone and that she just needs to be brave a little longer, stand up at the right time and get incredibly lucky to be successful in the revolt.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The President in the book is undoubtedly Trump, and I love the passages that reflect how the fictitious America didn’t become racist overnight, but that the leadership allowing it, ignited the ugliness that already existed. It mentions making America great again and really sets the foundation of a simple “what if” that really could happen very easily.
The parts that struggle are the story elements, I really didn’t find myself cheering or even liking Layla, I didn’t find her charismatic or interesting, she was really whiney and flat to me. I didn’t care one bit about her and David’s relationship, it seemed forced and completely not necessary. A friend or concerned neighbor might have been more hope inspiring than a high school boyfriend she is brooding over to save her. Her sneaking out and sneaking him in, all seemed selfish and juvenile for a character who in other arenas seemed pretty mature and level headed. The disconnect is pretty prominent and I really cringed at all of the passages involving the two of them.
There are flash backs to life before the new President, but it isn’t engaging and doesn’t really highlight how horrific life is now, because the lack of character development and world building, everything seems like it has to be said, not shown. Random characters at the camp would show up and then disappear, and we knew nothing about them, so there was no emotional connection or attachment to what happens to them, it really had so much potential to have heart and fear and insanity and it just doesn’t.
Layla identifies as Muslim, and lovingly recalls ayats and duas of her grandmother, but the family firmly believes that “there is no compulsion in religion” and thus doesn’t hide who they are, but don’t visibly display it in their clothing, or actions much either. They don’t have a problem with their daughter having a boyfriend and they support it. Layla and her mom don’t cover, but Layla does show massive respect for the Muslims that do. Layla’s parents seem to pray, Layla doesn’t, but she doesn’t seem against it.
Lots of kissing between Layla and David, a gay couple that disappears in the camp, flirting between various other characters, violence, oppression, language, death, beatings.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I actually feel like this could work as a book club book because the discussion would be so great. Yes, there are flags, but the relationship stuff is so annoying and awkward, I don’t think any kids will find it titilating or compelling at all. The writing is subpar, but the issues brought forth are important, and the students would have infinitely better plot lines for the characters that I think could make the books premise reach closer to its potential.
A letter from the Author: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/articles/a-letter-from-samira-ahmed-author-of-internment/
Review podcast: https://teachnouvelle.com/internment-by-samira-ahmed/
There is a ton online, just google it and Happy Reading