Author: Tahereh Mafi
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: Oct. 2018 (read Apr. 2019)
I have no idea how to review this book. I started working on my review days ago only to start all over again because I really wasn’t satisfied with it. Everyone else loved this book. It has a rating of 4.3 on goodreads with hundreds of rave reviews, yet I undeniably did not enjoy it. I disliked the romance and I thought Shirin’s voice was a bit juvenile. But it also addresses a lot of really great issues and deals with topics that undoubtedly are relatable to a lot of people. I don’t want to bash it because #ownvoices stories like this are really important. They’re important for representation, so that people who are minorities can feel seen and heard. And they’re important for educating all those people who can’t relate so that hopefully in the future, they can better understand and empathize with people unlike themselves. I wonder which of these two categories the majorities of readers fall into.
I’m a 28 year old, white, Canadian, woman, so I’m obviously not the intended audience for this book and I’m not going to relate to it in the same way as say, a 16 year old muslim girl. But I’ve read a lot of other similarly themed books where I related to the MC a lot more than I did in this book (With the Fire on High, TATBILB, The Nowhere Girls, I am not your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Aristotle and Dante, The Hate U Give, etc, etc, etc). Overall, I think I have similar thoughts as from my experience reading Internment earlier this year. I thought this book did a lot of great things, but I just really didn’t like the writing style and I found the romance downright cringey.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is about a young muslim girl, Shirin, whose parents have moved her all over the country, making it difficult to make friends as she is constantly switching schools. It doesn’t help that this story is set right after 9/11 and Shirin wears a hijab, which intimidates a lot of her classmates and further isolates her from her peers. In this post 9/11 world, her classmates are actively hostile against her, causing Shirin to disconnect from everyone else and live in her own little world.
Let’s start with what I liked. I thought Shirin was actually a pretty cool character in that she was very confident in her choice to wear hijab. It was not forced on her by her parents or culture, it was a decision she actively made for herself and she wasn’t embarrassed by it. People were very cruel to her, but she had a remarkably strong character in the face of such adversity, so I didn’t blame her from becoming closed off against the world. But she is also very critical of others. She often judges people and makes a lot of assumptions about them. She assumed that everyone judged her and it was just easier not to give anyone a chance. Again, I don’t blame her because after so many microaggressions, I’m sure it would be difficult to assume the best in people. I liked how Mafi explored this conflict and had Shirin reflect on how she ultimately might be closing people out of her life by refusing to ever give them a chance.
I also really like the inclusion of so many microaggressions in the book and found them to be the most impactful part of the story. Although I struggle to classify much of what happened to Shirin as “micro” aggressions, because in my opinion most people were full on aggressive against her. The inclusion of microaggressions is so important though because it’s really the cumulative impact of microaggressions that drive people to the brink. In isolation, it’s easy to brush off one insult or let it roll of your shoulder, but the cumulative impact of being put down day after day is exhausting and what continues to oppress minorities.
But this brings me to an issue that is making me wonder if maybe I have a blind spot in my world view because I had a similar experience with Internment. Both books had some really evil villains in them. I love the inclusion of microaggressions because I assume they are highly relatable to other muslims, but often go unnoticed by everyone else (ie. white people). The inclusion of them serves that dual purpose of both representation and education. White people don’t often recognize the ways in which they are privileged and books like this are a great way to highlight them.
But some of the characters were so cruel I struggled to believe them. The camp director in Internment read like a caricature to me, which I found less impactful because anyone who is so obviously evil and easy to hate has less impact in a story because no one is every going to relate to them. White people will say, “oh, well I’m not as bad as that person” and pat themselves on the back and move on, whereas they should be taking a good long look in the mirror and thinking about the ways in which they may be perpetrators of microaggressions or harmful thinking in other areas of their lives. Ocean’s coach in this book was just a horrible, selfish human being and his mom was so manipulative and two-faced. There were people literally throwing food at Shirin, I was like, OMG, are people actually this bad?
And this is why I wonder if I do have a blind spot. Are people really this bad? Tahereh Mafi has stated that this is her most semi-autobiographical novel, so who am I to question those experiences? Even though this book is set in 2002, right after 9/11, when people were particularly hostile against muslims, it’s not really any different from where America is today. I would actually argue that it’s worse. People are openly hateful towards muslim people – there was a literal muslim ban for heaven’s sake! So I don’t know that it’s fair to question any of the behaviours in this book. I think I may have a tendency towards the more subtle forms of oppression because they make me think a lot more than the obviously evil forms of oppression. Although this review is undoubtedly making me think.
Like I said earlier though, I did like that Mafi spent some time exploring both sides of the story. And by that I mean that she wasn’t afraid to have Shirin take a good hard look at herself. It is inspiring that after being the recipient of so much hate, she was able to recognize that her experiences were making her jaded. She preferred to assume the worst about people and even though she was a pretty confident individual, the constant put-downs had chipped away a lot at her self esteem. She struggled to understand what Ocean would possibly see in her and kept waiting for him to cut and run.
Even though I didn’t personally like Shirin that much, I think the fact that she is the romantic heroine of the story is super important. We never see muslim girls at the center of romances, so I think that it is great to see more representation in our main characters. I just really didn’t like her relationship with Ocean. The dialogue was not good and it really made me cringe. Shirin constantly says one liners like “wow” and “okay” and I’m like, “wow, okay, I am so not blown away by this banter”. A lot of people talk about how they really love Mafi’s writing, but it didn’t inspire me to want to pick up any of her other books. I mean, I do appreciate a good awkward teenage exchange, because teenagers are pretty awkward and cringe-worthy in real life, so it’s definitely accurate. But so painful to read. This is where I probably need to start parting ways with YA, because I just can’t relate to these awkward, fumbling, exchanges anymore.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this book includes break-dancing. It’s probably the most random part of the story, that Shirin and her brother and his friends form this break-dancing troupe, but it was a cool way to remind readers that Shirin is still a normal teenage girl, interested in music and popular culture. It was also a useful tool in the story to get other people in Shirin’s school to see her as human. Shirin was afraid to let people in or take risks because she assumed they wouldn’t accept her. But by cutting them out they struggled to see her as an individual. She was just a representation of islam, of something they were afraid of. Once they saw her break dancing, it was a lot easier for people to accept her. It’s a sad commentary on our society, that its’s so easy to erase people, but pretty accurate.
Overall, this review did help me to appreciate this book a little bit more. You definitely won’t catch me picking it up again, but now that I’m removed from the awkward dialogue and cringe-worthy teenage angst, it’s a little easier to appreciate some of the good things about the story. I would not recommend the audiobook though. I really didn’t like the narrator and that could also have had an influence on my dislike of the story. 2.5 stars overall
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