Saints and Misfits: a novel by S.K. Ali.
Salaam Read, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2017.
YA contemporary, 328 pages.
Not yet leveled.
Janna just wants to live her life – hang out with her friends, study, work her very part-time jobs, pray, and maybe dream a little about her secret haram crush. But something has changed her world, something unthinkable, horrible, and so big she doesn’t know what to do.
For some reason I thought this was a light and fluffy read. However, I completely misunderstood, because by chapter two we’re reliving one of the worst moments of Janna’s life, when she is assaulted by a man who is supposedly holy, the man she calls the Monster.
Indeed, the title of each short chapter (Saints, Misfits, or Monsters) relates to how she sees the main people she’s interacting with in that chapter. Some chapters contain more than one category, or a comment as she begins to realize that some of those she sees as Saints are really Misfits, etc.
Ali’s portrayal of PTSD and abuse felt realistic. Janna feels frozen, has difficulty talking about the abuse, even to herself, has flashbacks at moments she can’t always control, and is extremely damaged by even seemingly innocuous actions from her abuser.
The ethnicity of characters came up, but wasn’t a central point. We know from the description of one that he’s at least part African or African-American, while another character being half Saudi-Arabian comes up as a plotline. Ali also describes white characters similarly. The Polish heritage of one comes up frequently; another is described in such a way that we know she appears white. Janna herself is half Indian, half Egyptian. Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mother, although her father is a big part of their lives too.
There are a range of portrayals of Muslims, too, from the super-observant, to the serious but not rigid, to one character that barely practices Islam. The majority are positive, but Ali shows us realistic shades of gray in a Muslim community and the challenges modern teens might face in navigating religion, gym class, and the typical teen emotions. While most characters are Muslim or unknown, one major character is emphatically Hindu.
Growing up in a conservative environment, I related so much to Janna’s struggles. I’m not Muslim, so the hijabi aspect was different, but trying to be fashionable and modest, or struggling with courtship versus modern dating was so similar. I loved the niqab plotline and how Ali showed that women choose coverings for different reasons.
This book moved me. I started it expecting to easily put it down again, but was simply not able to do so. Most of the characters and situations seemed true to life and Janna’s story felt vivid and fresh.
This is marked as a teen read, and should appeal to YA and New Adult readers, but I felt it could be read by mature middle school students as well. Obviously the big topic might be difficult for some readers, and there is some drinking, some swears, and some incredibly vague references to drugs. However, if my kids are going to read a book including these subjects, I’d want it to be this one, with a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of such a difficult and complex topic.
I had been hoping that one of the Muslim bloggers I follow would review it first, however, the reviews identified as #ownvoices on Goodreads seem mostly positive. I did find an #ownvoice review by Leenah, and a new blog to follow! Recommended.