Sunday, January 14, 2018

That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim


Rating: WORTHY!

This is ostensibly a high-school romance story, but it offered so much more than that. It begins during Shabnam Qureshi's last week of high-school and extends into her last summer before college starts. She is nominally a Muslim, but that speaks more to her heritage than her practice, because she really doesn't practice her faith. The story is more about cultural and religious clashes and about how foolish a first love can be.

Shabnam meets Jamie, a charming, romantic guy who easily knocks sheltered Shabnam off her feet. Because of her sheltered upbringing, she has very little experience of boys and is therefore easy prey for the much more worldly Jamie, who seems a bit 'off' right from the start. While Shabnam is falling in foolish teenage love with him, he's more in love with the idea of an exotic and potentially forbidden femme than ever he is with her for herself, and she is far too inexperienced to see this.

In a way, they have a lot in common: they are both very shallow in their own way, and they both purvey a big lie to the other. The difference is that Shabnam is potentially a much deeper person than ever Jamie could hope to be, and as the story progresses, we see this blossoming in her repeatedly. Shabnam knows she lies, Jamie is too selfishly in love with himself to see that he's a living embodiment of a lie.

On the topic of lies, too many YA novels betray their main female character by insisting that she be validated by a man. I detest novels like that. This was not such a novel. It was about girl power and female friendship and it was the better for it. It was also about culture, religion, and conflict between generations, and in some ways I felt it risked cheapening the very message it was trying to send: about the riots and slaughter in India during partition, by tacking those on to this story.

The Brits are often blamed for the problems they caused in India as they should be, but at least they treated all Indians with equal disdain; they didn't single-out any one ethnic group or religion for abuse, whereas during partition, every religion turned against every other religion, which is one reason why I detest religion. It's divisive by its very nature in its arrogant and unprovable assertion that 'we're the chosen ones and you're doomed to hell' or whatever. That said, the injection of the parts about partition were not overdone, so it didn't feel like a lecture, nor did it disrupt the story, and it did get the word out about an historical tragedy that's been largely forgotten today.

Lending more weight to what is an already heavy subject, Shabnam is also at odds with her once best friend Farah, who is far more deeply religious than is Shabnam, but Farah has her own take on her religion. She approaches it in a far more fluid manner than many other people, adapting it to herself as much as she adapts to it. She's a lot more brash and brave, wise and mature than is Shabnam, and she was my favorite character, but I am often in the position of finding the side-kick more interesting than the main character in YA novels.

This is very much a high-school romance, YA novel, but that said, it's leagues ahead of the usual poorly-written, crappily-plotted story that's out there. That's why it won't sell as well as the others, because the bar is so low in YA books, and this one clears it so handily that it's going to be way above the head of an embarrassingly large number of YA readers. That said, this novel, like many YA novels, does fixate on music which it seems to me, is far more the author's addiction than ever it is the character's. This music will date this novel, so I paid as little attention to it as I did the poetry. The music and the poetry were both overdone and contributed nothing to he story. There was more wisdom came out of Farah's mouth than came out of the mouth of the poets and songwriters featured here!

Shabnam betrayed Farah when her friend chose to start wearing a hijab, but Farah failed to give Shabnam advance warning of her unilateral decision, and this is what caused the rift. Shabnam is embarrassed by Farah's change in habit (as it were!), and Farah feels betrayed by her friend's distancing of herself and her lack of support. They do maintain a prickly contact with each other especially since Farah is the only one Shabnam can turn to over her romance. Farah is often warning her friend about it, but Shabnam won't listen because she claims that Farah doesn't know Jamie like she does. In the end, it turns out that Farah actually knows Jamie better, even though the latter two have never met.

Some reviewers have chastised this novel for its lack of portrayal of Islam accurately, but those reviewers make the blind assumption that everyone practices Islam in exactly the same way and no-one ever makes foolish teenage jokes about aspects of it. I don't know a heck of a lot about Islam, and I am not religious myself. I think it's a serious mistake to blindly put your faith in the scientifically ignorant dictates of relatively primitive people from some two thousand or more years ago, but I do know people, and at least I have the decency to regard practitioners of religion, misguided as they are, as individuals, and not as a monolithic block of clones. Every walk of life and every religion has saints and sinners, and I would be surprised if Islam is somehow fundamentally different given that its practitioners are people just like the rest of us!

One thing which did strike me as odd was the whole hijab issue. My understanding is that it's related to modesty (and in this regard, both men and women are supposed to be modest), so I find it interesting that Farah, who considered wearing it to be pretty much a tenet of her faith, made such a big deal of wearing brightly colored and patterned hujub (the plural of hijab, although most westerners use 'hijabs'). I'm against forcing women to do something which men are never forced to do, but I don't have a lot of time for religion, and especially for rigid and blind religious practices, but that's not my point here.

Note that there is a spectrum of covering for females in the Muslim world from the least which is the hijab, or headscarf as we in the west would call it, to the most, which is the full-body burka. Farah wears only the headscarf and it's that term which is used in this novel for the most part, but the ones she wears are colorful and she also dolls them up as elaborate fashion statements. This whole practice was never discussed other than to mention it, but it occurred to me that this was rather hypocritical in that it can hardly be considered modest to wear such bright colors and to sport designs so elaborate that they can only succeed in drawing more attention to a woman than would otherwise be drawn!

In fact, I'd go further than that, because if the purpose of wearing a hijab is to avoid drawing attention, then wearing a hijab or any such garment in the west fails because it draws more attention! If they were to be rational and consistent (which religion is not, admittedly) then they would wear such things only where the majority wears them, and dispense with them where the majority does not wear them, because this is the only way that they would truly blend in instead of standing out! I know it's not quite that simple, and that modesty and means different things to different people, but in this particular story, Farah seems to be flying in the face of modesty by wearing the things she wears in the style she wears them. This was never raised as an issue, which I felt betrayed the whole point of Farah's choices.

That and the fact that the author doesn't seem to know the difference between tread and trod (the past tense of tread, as in 'take a step', is trod, not treaded, and tread and trod are not interchangeable!) are the only complaints I had about this. Farah was awesome and kick-ass, and I'm tempted to think a whole novel about her (her first year in college would be a great place to stage it) would be a worthy read, but that feeling is tempered by the fact that her power perhaps came from the fact that she was a limited exposure character, and if she had a whole novel to herself it might ruin her(!), unless the writer was me! No I'm kidding, I want to say unless the writer was particularly adept at her craft, which has author seems to be, so maybe it would work. But for now, I thoroughly recommend this as a worthy read and I plan to read more by this author.


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