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Thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with a review copy. In no way does this affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea
by Tahereh Mafi
Age Group/Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Publication date: October 16th, 2018
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.
Read an excerpt of the book on Entertainment Weekly.
I started reading this late one evening to fall asleep, planning on reading just one chapter at the most. But I just couldn’t stop reading. What a page-turner!
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is Tahereh Mafi’s most personal story yet, as it’s largely inspired by her own experiences. And it is absolutely incredible.
Shirin was a wonderful character to follow. I felt so deeply for her, and she felt so real to me. Although she is quite bitter at the beginning (which is completely understandable), over the course of the book she slowly learns to trust people again and we see some major character development.
Part of why I read is to learn things & gain a better understanding of people who are different from me. As a white, atheist reader, this book definitely did that for me. The experience of being a Muslim American teen in 2002, so close after 9/11, is so far removed from my own reality that I cannot even comprehend what that must have been like, and what it is still like.
I have never, nor will I ever experience racism, and the stories I hear from people of color — ranging from microaggressions to physical violence — still astonish me every time. Books like A Very Large Expanse of Sea help us understand better, especially through the eyes of Ocean, who is very privileged but eager to learn:
“It was so hard for Ocean to stomach that the world was filled with such awful people. I tried to tell him that the bigots and the racists had always been there, and he said he’d honestly never seen them like this, that he never thought they could be like this, and I said yes, I know. I said that’s how privilege works.”
The breakdancing parts weren’t my favorite, but I did grow to appreciate them because Shirin is so passionate about it. I loved learning about why she wears the headscarf and how she feels about it. The family dynamics and seeing what Ramadan is like for the entire family was lovely, as well as the brother/sister relationship. I even liked the romance between Shirin and Ocean — something I hadn’t expected because most romances don’t impress me anymore.
Even if you didn’t like the Shatter Me or Furthermore series, but you do like realistic fiction, please give this one a chance. The writing is excellent, like we’re used from her, but it’s on a whole other level than her other books.
This book should be on every high school reading list.
Content warnings: bullying, Islamophobia, racism, xenophobia. See more on my book trigger list.
“I trusted no one anymore. I was so raw from repeated exposure to cruelty that now even the most minor abrasions left a mark. The checkout lady at the grocery store would be rude to me and her simple unkindness would unnerve me for the rest of the day because I never knew — I had no way of knowing — Are you racist? Or are you just having a bad day?”
“People — and often guys — liked to say that Muslim women wore headscarves because they were trying to be demure, or because they were trying to cover up their beauty, and I knew that there were ladies in the world who felt that way. I couldn’t speak for all Muslim women — no one could — but it was a sentiment with which I fundamentally disagreed. I didn’t believe it was possible to hide a woman’s beauty. I thought women were gorgeous no matter what they wore, and I didn’t think they owed anyone an explanation for their sartorial choices.
Different women felt comfortable in different outfits. They were all beautiful.”