It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
Despite being mildly curious about the book ever since I first came across it, I didn’t get around to A Very Large Expanse of Sea until much later. I’m not very sure why, but boy, am I mad at myself for not picking this one up sooner! Thanks to Vera, really, who sent the book my way or I might never have read it EVER. *shudders* I finished devouring this within the span of a few hours and it was beautiful, poignant and heartbreaking- just how I like my books. Apart from a few problems, this book made me happy, sad and angry all at once, and I’m so glad this one was written. Let’s now talk about why it worked for me, and at times didn’t quite so much!
A coming-of-age story featuring a hijabi teen living in America in 2002, in the very turbulent times after 9/11, this book is about Shirin, a 16 y/o who has about had it with the relentless hate and judgmental people she has to put up with on a daily basis. She seeks solace from music- using her brother’s ipod with her earphones underneath her hijab- loves breakdancing, and is super into fashion designing. Snarky, kickass, tired and so done with everything, she was a character I could relate to on some levels, though she was a character so very unlike myself. She has had to undergo a lot in life, be it being attacked on the street because of her race, being abused for wearing hijab, or generally being treated like she was trash, all thanks to racism and xenophobia. Her attitude towards life was very much justified and I was always in awe of her and her journey of self-discovery.
Apart from Shirin herself, I loved reading about her love for fashion design and breakdancing. I know next to nothing about either, but I did so love reading about both. Shirin never took breakdancing seriously (not like she had a choice tbh), but when the opportunity presented itself to her through her brother (more about him later!), she readily joins the club he starts with 3 of his friends. Together they have tons of fun and discover themselves and their potential, and there’s just so much love and support all around that I kept wanting more, more, more of it all!
Coming back to Shirin’s brother, Navid was the best. Their relationship was honestly #goals and I loved their dynamics. Always supportive, understanding and protective of Shirin (without being overbearing), he was just such an amazing big brother and really stirred up my woes about not having a big brother myself. NOT FAIR. His breakdancing friends were a great bunch too and it was lovely seeing Shirin being around them, and even lovelier to see their attitude towards Ocean- no, not the ocean, but Ocean, Shirin’s eventual (not a spoiler!) boyfriend!
Ocean was another character whose existence I greatly appreciated. He was perfect in just about every way, and I loved how he respected Shirin’s faith and was eager to learn more about her and understand her despite her not being the friendliest. He knew when to hold himself back and when to not, and just loved that about him. If I am to be particularly nitpicky I’d just say I wish he wasn’t the generic white-jock-love-interest, but he was so charming and I do feel the author did her best given the situation that I didn’t really mind.
This leads me to what I wish had been done better in the book. Despite breakdancing being a huge part of Shirin’s life, it did ultimately take the backseat when Ocean came into the picture and things started going haywire. I’d have loved to read more about it, at least once every now and then towards the latter part of the book. I’m all for Muslim girls finding love and reading about the eventual struggles they face (which was especially daunting in Shirin’s case because of the Islamophobia that factored into their relationship), but I definitely don’t like it when romance takes precedence over everything else, making all built up until then redundant.
Moreover, Shirin wasn’t very forthcoming about her faith too, which I didn’t really give much though to while reading the book, but couldn’t stop thinking about ever since a friend pointed it out to me. She was very firm about her choice to wear hijab, but never once talked about the inherent spirituality that comes with it, and nor does she talk about why she doesn’t pray regularly though she mentions in passing that she doesn’t, much later in the book. I specify it being later in the book because there was a major portion of the book, towards the beginning, where I wasn’t very sure of her even being Muslim because none of that sort was mentioned till then though she was touted to be one in the synopsis.
However, like I mentioned before, I didn’t really notice where the book fell short while reading it because it was so well-written. I was fully invested in the story right from the get go and despite not having read anything by the author before, I’m now really, really looking forward to more of her works though I’ve heard that her other books are distinctly different from this one. All in all, I’d say Tahereh Mafi draws from her personal experiences and works wonders in this convincing story about the racism, prejudice and islamophobia Muslims faced (and still face) post 9/11. Highly recommended!