I had mixed feeling about this throughout. On the one hand I liked a lot of the writing, but on the other, the plot and the main character were a real problem. In the end, the ending decided me against favoring this.
I read a few reviews of this to see if I was way off-base or on-point and it seems I was the latter, not the former. Although many people liked this, those of us who did not, seemed to have similar issues with it. My problem was not with the presentation of Muslims, because I don't have a fixed idea of what Islam is like or what any given Muslim might do.
Some of those who are Muslim seem to have a problem with Muslims who are represented in ways which are different from their own narrow idea of what a Muslim should be and how one should behave, but such people are forgetting that above and beyond everything else they may or may not be, Muslims are people just like the rest of us, and they do smart and dumb things, brave and cowardly things, rational and irrational things, exactly like the rest of us do! readers and writers who fail to grasp this are limiting themselves chronically.
There was a lot of bandying about the 'hashtag own voices' bullshit in the reviews I read, but this seemed like such a reflexive, if not knee=jerk, label that I laughed at it. It still comes down to the antique notion of 'write what you know'. If people wrote what they know, there'd be no science fiction, because we don't fly around the galaxy or time-travel. There are no magical super heroes. Stephen King never went into another dimension and met a gunslinger. John Grisham was doubtlessly an attorney, but he never was involved in the specific cases he wrote about, and his books really aren't about the practice of law. They'd be boring if they were. JK Rowling never was an eleven-year-old boy, much less a wizard. Suzanne Collins never entered a dystopian death match. Write what you know is nonsensical. My advice is to write what you can get away with and make it as real as you possibly can.
I do not have any time for religion and especially not for organized religion which is a bane of life on Earth. I don't care what people privately believe. It's none of my business as long as they're harming no-one and not trying to impose their beliefs on others, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good story about people of faith or about the 'battle' between good and evil. I was interested in reading this one not because it was written by an author who writes on Muslim topics in Canada, but because it was, I thought, a story about rape and I was curious as to how it was treated in the context of Islam.
It turned out that the Islam part was irrelevant; it was bait and switch. The story told here was no different from how the same novel would have been had the characters been Christian, Judaist, Hindu or atheist! So the Muslim context was in effect nothing more than a niqab flimsily covering what everyone knows is underneath anyway. And that segues into a definition of these outfits. What's a hijab? This is my understanding - which I admit may be flawed, but in general simple terms, a hijab is what we in the west would call a headscarf. So why even call it a hijab? Well, a hijab tends to actually incorporate a scarf which wraps round the neck.
A burka is full head-to-toe covering. Strictly speaking, a niqab is a face veil, but it's often viewed as a complete head and shoulders covering rather like what Ronan the Accuser wears in Guardians of the Galaxy as it happens. That overall ensemble may or may not cover the face, but the tendency is for the face to be covered leaving only the most alluring part of the face visible - the eyes, which to me is hypocritical, but then, as I said, I have no time for hidebound traditions. I think people who blindly follow a set of rules laid down fourteen hundred years ago, or two thousand years or more ago, are morons, and it seems a lot of religious adherents agree with me since the majority of people tend to practice a very relaxed version of their religion rather than the original, usually much more strict path.
For example, all Christians are hypocrites in that they claim to follow what Jesus taught, but very few actually do. I don't believe there ever was a Jesus Christ, miracle-working son of a god, but if there had been, he was a Jew, not a gentile, and he practiced Judaism, not Christianity! He taught Judaism, and he came only for those of the house of Israel. No Christians practice Judaism. None of them is really a follower of Jesus; they're followers of Paul, who very effectively derailed what Jesus purportedly taught. His name wasn't even Jesus for Christ's sake! It was Yeshua, so anyone praying in his name is calling on the wrong guy unless they're praying to Yeshua (which is what we in the unsubtle west call Joshua)!
But let's talk about this book. The main character is Janna Yusef. She's a young Muslim in school and she wears a hijab. To me the hijab is an abuse of women. The Koran, as I understand it (which may be wrong!) talks about modesty. That talk applies equally to men and women, yet today all the onus is of course on the women of Islam to cover themselves lest they excite and incite men. There is no onus on men to quit being such lustful dicks. It's all on the woman, and so conveniently is the blame should something go wrong. Repeatedly we see attacks on women for immodesty or for wanting an education; we never see attacks on men. This is a fundamental flaw and weakness not only in Islam, but in any religion where women are isngle-d out negatively, and it needs to stop.
So one problem with this novel (and to be fair with several other such novels I've read) is that this this author fails to explore any of that. Like her main character, she simply accepts status quo, aka subjugation and repression. That was one problem with the novel, but the Islam novels I've read accept it; none of the main characters even question it, much less rebel against it. That was a problem with Janna. She had an nice sense of humor, but she was such a limp character, and she never changed except for one brief irrational and completely out-of-character spell near the end, which was too little, too late, and therefore entirely ineffective. No justice was delivered because she was so retiring and subjugated. To me this was badly written.
So what happened to Janna? This was another problem for this novel. It is entirely unclear what happened until close to the end. Was she raped or was she merely threatened with a violation - which is bad enough, but nowhere near as bad as an actual rape? The novel doesn't make this clear until near the end, so Janna's reaction to it is entirely out of proportion, and it is nonsensical. Before I go on, let me make it clear that for me, it's the victim's choice how they react to something like this. Those who have been violated are entitled to react in any way they want, but that said, they also ought to bear in mind that if they're accepting, or at least passive and retiring after something like this, then they're encouraging the violator to repeat-offend, and this is a problem because if they get away with it once, there is a big compulsion to try it again and another woman becomes the victim.
For the longest time while reading this I was bothered by Janna's reaction - or more accurately, an almost complete lack of one, because on the one hand she was persistently referring to Farooq, the man who did this, as a monster and living in near-terror of him when he was around, yet she never reported it. On the other hand her terror disappeared when he was out of sight, and she was going about her life as though nothing bad had happened. She was even obsessing on another boy in school who was not a Muslim. This felt inauthentic to me.
I've never been raped or violated in that way, but I have had events in my life where I've felt threatened, and I tend not to be able to let those things go, especially not in the immediate aftermath. I still remember them and in (fortunately!) an increasingly mild way relive them. I assume that others - to a greater or lesser degree - go through a similar process. Perhaps other people are able to let things go better than I am, but I doubt everyone is, especially after an event like Janna experienced, so this almost complete lack of any kind of real traumatization on Janna's part was unrealistic in my book.
The only time she had any issues was when Farooq was in proximity. The rest of the time it was like nothing bad had happened, so we were bouncing back and forth: was she raped, which would explain why she saw him only as a monster, in which case why was she not more traumatized than she was? Why was she not angry? How could she become interested in another guy so quickly? Or was she merely threatened with rape, which would explain some of her behavior afterwards, but not all of it?
I think the author failed in not describing the event better. No one in their right mind wants 'juicy details' of something like this, and maybe she intended it to be ambiguous, but for what purpose? I saw no purpose to it. In my opinion this was a writing fail, so let me clear this up now and reveal that there was no rape. There was a serious violation in that Farooq pushed her down on the couch and was trying to put his hand under her sweater when he was interrupted, but that was it. That was bad enough, and it was unacceptable and should have been dealt with. It wasn't. Again, this was a writing fail.
So my problem with this was that it was really much ado about nothing. Not that what happened was nothing; it wasn't, but the way this was written meant the writer sadly treated it as nothing for the almost the entire length of the novel! It didn't work. Nor did it matter about the Islamic veneer. It really played no part in the story. It felt like it was just set decoration - those background objects in a movie which people tend to see but pay little attention to. So I didn't get why people focused on this, rather than the poor story-telling. It was serious misdirection. That's not to say you can't have a novel where Islam is just a background. We do need more like that: a quarter of the world's population is Islam, but you'd never know it if all you read was novels published in the USA by native authors!
From that perspective, there was another character, Sausun, who was far more interesting than ever Janna was, but we got nowhere near enough of her. There was another character named Tats who was also more interesting, but we got precious little of her, too. In fact, even 'Saint Sarah' was a more interesting character than Janna. Her wedding to Mohammed) which was in the very early planning stage in this novel) would have made a better story than this one.
Why the author didn't chose to write about one of these people instead of Janna is a mystery. So for me the novel was a fail for all these reasons, and despite the fact that, for a while, I was liking it. Having finished it now, and found that there was no justice and a lot of the side stories simply fizzled out, I cannot recommend it. The book would have been better and a lot shorter had those red herrings been ditched. It would have packed more punch had it stayed focused on the central issue, and had Janna been less of a limp biscuit.
This brings me back to the 'own voices' bullshit. I think this novel was in part a fail because it was written by a person who was intimately familiar with the Muslim faith. I think if a non-Muslim writer had written it, we would have had a better story, in the same way that say, a Hindu writer had written about a Christian character, or a Muslim written about an atheist. I think if you are a person of faith writing a story, even if your intended audience is others of your faith, you have a duty to think at least a little bit outside the box if you want to tell a really good story. Otherwise what's the point? A better Muslim writer would have seen that and given us a great story, so this one wasn't any such story and I was sorry of it, because it could have been so much better had it been written even just a little bit more wisely and with more clarity.