A Very Large Expanse Of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

The Blurb On The Back:

When you’re hiding from a world that hates you, who would make you risk everything to be seen again?

It’s the year after 9/11, and Shirin has just started at yet another new high school.  It’s a difficult time, but especially so for a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who wears hijab.  Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be.

She hides away, drowning her frustrations in music, and spending her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.  But then Shirin meets Ocean James.  He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know her – and it terrifies her.  He’s not like everyone else – but Shirin has had her guard up against the world for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down … 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s late August 2002.  16-year-old Shirin has just started at a new high school with her older brother Navid.  Her parents emigrated the America for a better life and work hard, constantly moving around as they get better jobs and move to nicer neighbourhoods in different cities, which means that Navid and Shirin are constantly changing schools. Navid finds this easy – tall, athletic and good looking, he always makes friends and quickly integrates into school life.

For Shirin, however, things are different because she wears hijab – a head scarf – and in post 9/11 America, which has already invaded Afghanistan and stands ready to invade Iraq, anything that marks you out as a practicing Muslim – especially a female Muslim – is to invite abuse (at worst) and hurtful microaggressions (at best).  As a result, she tries to stay under the radar, listening to her music through ear buds hidden beneath her head scarf, practicing break dancing with her brother and his friends while refusing to engage with her peers and just waiting out the next two and a half years until she can leave.

And then Shirin meets Ocean James – a white boy with whom she is paired in her biology class.  Ocean seems to be genuinely interested in her and while he asks the same stupid questions that other people have asked, he also seems to learn from his mistakes and Shirin is terrified to realise that she wants to get to know him too …

Tahereh Mafi’s historical YA romance combines fierce anger with a steamy, intense relationship and is based on her experiences of being a Muslim teenager wearing hijab in post 9/11 America.  The behaviour displayed towards Shirin is sadly believable and although I think some of the supporting characters are thinly drawn, the passion between the central characters carries you through such that I’d definitely check out Mafi’s other work.

The story very much hangs on Shirin as a character and Mafi gives her a great first person voice, which instantly makes it easy to relate to her.  In a foreword to the book, Mafi says that she wanted to write to give a voice to “Muslim American teenagers in a world where they’re seldom given a chance to speak” and I think Shirin does that.  She’s completely believable as a character, I loved how Mafi shows her Persian heritage and her American experience (most obviously through her love of break dancing) and Mafi does well at showing how her faith is part of her but doesn’t define her (with her thoughts on wearing hijab expressed particularly well).

What Mafi really gets across is Shirin’s anger and hurt at how Americans treat her – whether through the vocalised hatred directed towards her (with some particularly unpleasant scenes) but also through the microaggressions (with Mafi doing well at showing what these are and how they’re hurtful, even when the person making them thinks they’re acting in an innocent or well-intended way).  One of my favourite scenes in the book is where Shirin chews out a white, liberal male teacher who crosses the line (even though he did not intend to), making the point that she is not a teaching point for him.

The main driver of the book though is the romance between her and Ocean.  I’m not normally a fan of romances because of the way they tend to hit clichés but Mafi does well at portraying the passion that the two feel for each other and there’s a suitable steaminess to their encounters that the target audience will enjoy. For myself, while I wasn’t convinced by Shirin’s reasons for wanting to stay away from Ocean but that is partly the point – similarly I wasn’t quite convinced by her ignorance of who Ocean was given the nature of the school she was in, but again I could move past it in the context of the story.

Some of the side characters are under-developed (notably Ocean’s mum and coach), which means they exist to make a point and suffer accordingly.  I would have also have liked a bit more interaction between Shirin and her brother’s breakdancing friends as it offered an opportunity to flesh her out, and I could have done without the introduction of Yusuf who’s there purely to lead to an inevitable misunderstanding.

My criticisms aside, I thought this was an enjoyable and powerful read and I am keen to read Mafi’s other work on the back of it.

A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA was released in the United Kingdom on 18th October 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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