Author: Samira Ahmed
Genres: Young Adult, Dystopian
Pub date: Mar. 19, 2019 (Read Feb. 2019)
Thanks to Hachette Book Group Canada for providing me with a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
I was really excited about this book, I thought the premise sounded super interesting and appropriate for the current political climate. I read Samira Ahmed’s debut novel, Love, Hate, & Other Filters, last year and didn’t really like it, but I was super optimistic about this book and even included it on my most anticipated books of 2019 list. I’m still really glad a book like this exists, but sadly I was very disappointed with it. I may just not be the intended audience for this anymore as someone in my late twenties, but it really didn’t work for me.
Like I said, the premise of the book is great. It’s about Muslim teenager, Layla Amin. Since the inauguration of the new president, America has seen a lot of changes. Muslims were asked to identify themselves in the latest census and with the creation of the new Muslim registry, Layla has been forced out of school and her parents have been forced out of their jobs. Then one day, the police show up at her home and escort her entire family to America’s first internment camp in the middle of the California desert.
The camp is called Mobius. At Mobius, Muslims are divided into blocks by ethnicity and forced to live in small trailers. Her parents do their best to adapt to this new life and keep their heads down, but Layla misses her old life and boyfriend on the outside and starts to rebel against the camp’s Director and his racist policies. But what will be the cost for her rebellion and as a teenager, does she really have the power to change anything?
I’m really glad a book like this exists and I hope it gets into the hands of the right people. But what I struggled to understand was who the intended audience is? Is it meant for the already liberal-minded? Is it hoping to expand the opinions of those who are unsure where they sit in the current political climate? Is it targeted at the MAGA faction that is scared and hateful towards those who are different from themselves? Or is it just meant to give voice to the rage and pain of American Muslims? As an already liberal minded person, this didn’t really challenge my thinking or offer me any new insights, but I think it could be a great book for younger teens who are confused by politics or whose views may differ from those of their parents and they don’t know where to turn for information. So I’m really glad this book exists and I hope it can help inform teenagers or just support Muslim American teenagers in feeling heard.
The reason I didn’t like it is because it’s so heavy handed. Nothing about this book is subtle and I felt like the author was just trying to beat me over the head with her politics. It’s the prime example of why “show, don’t tell” is so much more effective and enjoyable. I don’t think Ahmed trusts her readers at all. She spells out every single point and action of her characters and doesn’t trust her readers to come to their own conclusions. She is constantly telling us how Layla is feeling rather that letting her circumstances and actions speak for themselves. Layla also didn’t feel like a teenager to me. She felt a bit like a 17 year old espousing an adult’s viewpoints. I like to think teenagers are this woke, but she knew a lot of random historical facts about Japanese internment camps and other politically motivated rebellions around the world. Overall it added to the book, but felt a little forced coming from a teenager who mostly just seems overly into her boyfriend.
I went back to look at my review of Ahmed’s first book and I have similar complaints with this book. I felt like her characters were so 1-dimensional and that the emotional connection to them was just really lacking. Her characters feel more like caricatures and it made it hard to relate to any of them. I was frustrated by how obsessed Layla was with David when she had so many more pressing concerns. All of her relationships felt extremely surface level and I never felt that any of her relationships had any great depth. She talks about how she’s worried about the impact her actions might have on her parents, but I never really felt any tension because I didn’t feel any connection between the characters to begin with.
I thought the Director was the greatest caricature of the novel. He was too classically evil for me to ever take him seriously. I thought the Director represented a great opportunity to influence your readers and hopefully alter their mindsets. But the Director is too much of a villain that he doesn’t incite that feeling of righteous anger or conflict. If your goal is to alter someone’s mindset or opinions, you need a more nuanced villain. Someone who you can almost relate to, but highlights the flaws of conservative America. No one will relate to the Director, so it’s easy to dismiss him as just a hateful asshole. He doesn’t make you question your thoughts or views and that was the main way that this novel failed for me.
I think liberals will read this book and be reminded of why they are frustrated with the current administration, while conservatives will read the book and think it’s ridiculous and Muslims just trying to paint white people as the bad guys. Just to clarify, I do not think that’s what this book is doing at all. I think this is actually a story to give voice to the feelings that Ahmed has about the direction America is going. And if this story gives voice to that rage and pain for Ahmed and for readers like her, then I think this book has achieved something great. I am not American and I am not Muslim, so who am I to say that this book doesn’t have value? I do believe it has value, I just wanted it to be more nuanced because I want white Americans to pick up this book and read a viewpoint that they hadn’t really thought about. I want them to see Muslims as people and that their viewpoints might be changed by reading about this horrifying near-future scenario. I guess I just don’t have very much faith in people’s ability to change and I thought this book was just too surface level to change the viewpoints of people that don’t already agree with this book.
However, it is unfair of me to put that responsibility on the author. She is not responsible to change people’s minds. It’s why I question who her audience is? As an Own Voices book, I can really see this working for some people and I really hope that it does. If you are an American Muslim feeling outcast in your school, or your community, or your country, then I hope this is the book that you needed to pick up to feel seen and understood. This book wasn’t what I was hoping it would be, but I am probably not the intended audience. I fully support the themes Ahmed tackles in this book, her writing style and methods just aren’t for me. I hate to be critical of books like this because I do think they are extremely important and authors need to be supported to write them. But I also don’t want to give good reviews to a book just because I’m glad it exists – I still want it to be a thoughtful and well-written book. I thought this book had so much potential and honestly, I just wanted more from it. But hopefully it will make its way into the hands of the right readers!
One last criticism I have of this book is that I’m uncomfortable with the number of famous quotes and ideas that Ahmed includes without referencing the source material. I think she is paying homage to some great people, but it rubs me the wrong way when those individuals are not referenced. The tagline on the back is “rebellions are built on hope”, which is obvious to me that it’s from the Star Wars Rogue One movie. The characters repeatedly joke about their love of star wars, but this quote is used without every directly attributing it to Star Wars. Two others that I picked up on were that she has one of her characters reference how “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”, which has been attributed to Hamilton and Malcolm X among others, and Layla repeatedly says “the people united will never be defeated”. Please reference these individuals because otherwise it seems like you are trying to pass these ideas off as your own.