Monday, October 29, 2018

Book Review: "A Very Large Expanse of Sea" by Tahereh Mafi

I read for a number of different reasons. I read for relaxation, for entertainment, for escape. I read to be provoked into thought or action, I read to feel, and sometimes my funny bone or my tear ducts need a good workout. And sometimes, I read to learn.

The ideal book is a combination of at least a few of these, which was one of the reasons I enjoyed Tahereh Mafi's newest novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea. I empathized with the characters and found the story emotional and appealing, but I also learned a little more about what the world was like for a teenage Persian girl in the months after 9/11.

Shirin is 16 years old. One thing she and her family have become tremendously skilled at is moving. It seems like any time they start to feel settled, her parents decide it's time to move again, ostensibly to find an even better life for Shirin and her older brother, Navid. What they don't understand is how the world—and especially high school—can be so horribly cruel to a teenage Persian girl who wears a headscarf. (Given all of the horrible torture and turmoil her parents faced to escape from Iran and give their children a chance at happiness and success, they're not tremendously moved by Shirin's tales of cruelty, ridicule, and occasional violence.)

"These, the regular injections of poison I was gifted from strangers, were definitely the worst things about wearing a headscarf. But the best thing about it was that my teachers couldn't see me listening to music."

In an effort to just get through the days, Shirin immerses herself in music, which helps her express her outrage and her loneliness, even if it's mostly self-imposed. But her favorite activity is breakdancing with her brother, and when he and his friends start a breakdancing club in school, she can't wait to be a part of it. She can have her protective walls and still learn the moves she's watched on old VHS tapes for years.

Then she meets Ocean, a fellow student who becomes her lab partner in biology class. He isn't willing to be pushed away by Shirin's immediate need to keep everyone beyond arm's length. He actually wants to know about what it's like to be Persian, not because he thinks she's an oddity, but because he's actually interested. But more than that, he's interested in her. And Shirin just can't have that. Even as she finds herself thinking more and more about Ocean, and wanting to be with him, she already knows how everything will turn out, and she doesn't want to put herself or him through that.

"It took a lot out of me to put up the walls that kept me safe from heartbreak, and at the end of every day I felt so withered by the emotional exertion that sometimes my whole body felt shaky."

When she decides that she can't live her life angry all the time, without letting anyone in, she lets herself be vulnerable. But even world-weary Shirin isn't prepared for the way people will behave. The fickleness of human behavior, the fear, the ignorance, the obsessions, become almost too much for her to bear, but she really has nowhere to turn. How could the possibility of love be worth all of this?

This was a tremendously affecting, beautifully written, thought-provoking (and anger-provoking) novel. I read the entire book in a day, and was simultaneously moved, outraged, saddened, horrified, embarrassed, and utterly hooked. All too often we make judgments about a person because of how they behave, or what they look like, or what their beliefs are, and it's amazing how often we lose the true person we're judging.

I had never read any of Mafi's books before, although I've always wanted to. Even though I know her other books are very different from this one, clearly she is an incredible storyteller, because she had me staying up late to finish this, and I can't stop thinking about Shirin and Ocean. What a fascinating and beautiful story this was.

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