CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 40 . . . . June 23, 2017
Janna is a 15-year-old Muslim girl who is dealing with events in her life the best she can. She does well at school and has close friends. She has a crush on one of the guys in her class. Her parents are divorced, and Janna lives with her mom and her older brother, Muhammad. She helps out at the mosque by taking photos of special events and helping the imam by editing the advice column he writes. She takes her elderly neighbour, Mr. Ram, to activities at the community centre. In other words, she seems able to deal with the saints in her life who are special people for her and with the misfits in her life, those people who don't seem to belong or who don't seem to 'fit' with Janna and her lifestyle. But then there is the monster. Janna has been assaulted by someone who is well-known and respected, and she is unable to share this with anyone. This knowledge, and the fact that the man continues to quietly stalk her, colours every move and decision Janna makes.
S.K. Ali gives her readers a remarkable protagonist in this debut novel. Janna is funny and smart, kind and caring. She has to deal with peer pressure about wearing a hijab and wanting a relationship with a non-Muslim guy in her class. The pressure becomes bullying when photos of her – in gym class without hijab - appear on Facebook. Thanks to her supportive friends and the gradual strengthening of her self-esteem, Janna is able to overcome her initial anger and embarrassment. But the effects of the assault haunt her, and this is one thing she simply cannot cope with on her own.
The author has created a cast of strong supporting characters who are integral to the success of the novel. Janna's father is secular, is remarried to a non-Muslim woman and has started a new family. He keeps in touch by texting Janna daily words of wisdom. Janna's mother is beginning to find herself after the divorce, and her brother Muhammad is both aggravating and adorable. His girlfriend, "Saint" Sarah, turns out to be more likeable than her nickname implies. Janna has a close girlfriend named Tatyana as well as a girlfriend/mentor Sausun who attempts to help her deal with being the victim of an assault. Jeremy is a crush from class, but it is Nuah who eventually is the main love interest in Janna's life. Mr. Ram, Janna's elderly neighbour, takes time to quote poetry to her and is undoubtedly one of the saints referred to in the title of the book.
Janna's inability to deal with an assault forms one of the main themes of the novel and ties into another theme - judging people by their appearance rather than their actions. Readers learn of the assault near the beginning of the story, and tension rises because Farooq continues to show up wherever Janna goes, quietly stalking her. Janna knows he is there; Farooq knows his presence bothers her; readers are kept on edge wondering just what else might happen between them.
Farooq hides under a mask of being a good and conscientious Muslim man who has memorized the Koran and, therefore, has been invited to lead prayers in the mosque. The unveiling of this monster to the rest of the world comes only at the very end of the story when his actions belie his appearance. Ali also asks her readers to consider attitudes towards Muslims in society and the current trend to judge them by their outward appearance and to assume all Muslims are the same. Through the various characters in the novel, readers learn that Muslims are a group like any other, with the same emotions and desires and the same tendencies toward good or toward evil. As in any other group of people, there is a wide range of personalities, and each person should be judged on his or her own actions.
Some readers will automatically relate to this novel, and others will learn from it. Ali gives her Muslim readers characters who will resonate with them and whom they will enjoy. Non-Muslims will learn more about the religion and those who practice it. This information is sprinkled in conversations throughout the book and in the imam's advice column as well as the questions and answers during the Muslim Bowl Quiz. At no time do readers feel they are getting a lesson in religion, yet by the end of the book there is a sense of knowing just a little more about the Muslim faith and its adherents.
There are characters and relationships in the book that warrant more attention and perhaps they will form the basis of a sequel. Or perhaps S. K. Ali has other stories she wants to share. Either way, her next novel will be greatly anticipated.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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