Author: Jasmin Kaur
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Pub. Date: Jan 2021 (read May 2017)
This was an impulse buy at my local bookstore because I saw the author lives in Vancouver and the synopsis sounded so good! I’m so glad I did pick it up because it was excellent! It’s half written in prose, which made for some very dynamic storytelling.
If I Tell You the Truth is about a 19 year old Punjabi girl named Kiran. She grew up in Punjab and is accepted to study at Simon Fraser University. Her parents goal is for her to get an education and then return to marry the son of the neighbour. However, before Kiran flies to Canada, she is raped by her betrothed’s brother and becomes pregnant. She travels to Canada and tries to keep her pregnancy secret as long as possible, but when she decides she doesn’t want to have an abortion, she is forced to tell her family and unfortunately is rejected by them.
She does her best to continue her education as a young mother, but it is difficult and eventually her visa expires, forcing her to take whatever work she can to survive without papers. The narrative eventually transfers from Kiran to her daughter, Sahaara, and we learn more about the struggles their family faces. There are few avenues to citizenship, so they live a small life to avoid attention.
This book is about so many things – rape, teen pregnacy, immigration, #metoo, family, diaspora, healing – just to name a few. The writing is excellent and switches from traditional text to prose throughout the book. I think the first quarter of the book is the most powerful. I was immediately drawn into the story – the trauma Kiran had experienced and her struggles to come to terms with what happened to her and her subsequent choices. It is hard to read about her fear and grief, but I think the author really touches a nerve here and the reality of Kiran’s feelings leap off the page and into your heart. I admired and empathized with her so much throughout the first part of the novel.
After Sahaara is born the narrative switches primarily to Sahaara and follows her as she grows up. I enjoyed this part of the novel as well, even though it takes us in a different direction than the first part of the book. I loved that the story is set in Surrey – it just made it so much more impactful to me as someone who also lives in the lower mainland. Since I’ve lived in Vancouver, it has become a Sanctuary City (since 2018) and I’ve always thought of it as a pretty progressive place. I’ve come to learn since the pandemic started that it is definitely not that diverse safe haven that I thought it was and I think it’s really important to have books about what it’s like to live undocumented in Canada (so many books on this topic are set in America).
So with that in mind, this is definitely a book that I would recommend to anyone and everyone, especially Canadians. That said, I did think the pacing was a little bit off. I felt like the book reached its climax around the 75% mark, and I was curious about what else would happen with so much book remaining. The author goes in a totally new direction for the final quarter. It wasn’t unrelated to the rest of the book – the main plights for the characters are resolved in the first 3 quarters – leaving the rest of the book for them to really heal and take action for others.
This part of the book is also powerful, but I didn’t love it as much as what came before. I think it’s so important to have people that are willing to speak out against injustice, but the plot took such a diversion that I found it a little distracting and almost like I was reading a different book. Don’t get me wrong, I still thought the content was really important, it just felt like the author was maybe trying to address too many things in one book, like it was almost a little too cathartic. Plus I felt it delved away from the ‘show don’t tell’ theme, which was strong for most of the novel.
Overall though, it is a minor criticism. I just thought the first part of the book was a 5 star read, but landed more around 4 stars by the end of the book. It’s still superbly written and I think something like this should be required reading for high school students. Books like this are so much more relevant and important to young people than reading books like Dracula and Catcher in the Rye (a few of my least favs from my high school education). Honestly, as much as I loved some of the classics I read in High School, I become more and more convinced over time that we need to stop forcing them on high school students. I don’t think a lot of students have the maturity at 16 to appreciate them and I fear it does more harm in fostering bad feelings about literature. A total tangent, but I do really wish our education system spent more time on contemporaries like If I Tell You the Truth, The Hate U Give, Punching the Air, Far From the Tree, and The Nowhere Girls. READ IT!