(This review was originally published on the Letterpress Project website)
The publication of this first novel by Muhammad Khan, sometime engineer and current secondary school maths teacher, has caused quite a buzz in the world of young adult literature. And it’s not hard to see why – both the subject matter and writing are riveting.
The book starts with a note from the author who tells us that the inspiration for the book was the news in 2015 that three Bethnal Green schoolgirls had gone to Syria to join the forces of the self-styled Islamic State:
The girls, by all accounts, were academically gifted with caring families and friends. So what prompted their disastrous decisions – one that would cost them their lives?
And this is essentially the central theme of the book. Reviewing the novel in The Guardian, Fiona Noble said:
On paper, this sounds like a gritty “issues” book and, yes, such subjects as Islamaphobia and terrorism are intrinsic to the plot. Yet it’s testament to Khan’s skill as a writer that this is an uplifting, empowering novel with hope at its heart.
I certainly agree with this assessment. Khan’s approach is quite a daring one because he takes on the persona of a teenage Muslim girl to tell his story and he’s very convincing in the voice he creates for her. He clearly cashes in on his job as a teacher both in terms of his observations of the way teenagers behave but also, more impressively, in his lively dialogue.
His approach is also immersive – the story has an unusual amount of detail and back-story for a young adult novel and some people may well be surprised to find that it’s over 300 pages long. However, despite being lengthy the pace remains high throughout but, to be honest, I thought the middle part of the novel was perhaps over-stacked and I would have liked the exciting final third to have come along a bit quicker.
The storyline also has plenty in it that teenage readers will recognise. 15 year old Muzna (although we meet her first when she is 13) is a British born Muslim and by her own admission not a great beauty. She is, however, smart and talented – she desperately wants to be a creative writer even though her controlling parents, originally from Pakistan, have planned out a future for her as a doctor. When her father loses his job, the family have to move and Muzna finds herself at a new school. Although she is shy and the target of bullying by more aggressive or confident girls, she finds herself becoming obsessed with Arif, one of the most handsome boys in the school.
She assumes this very hot boy will have no interest in her but to her surprise and delight that’s not the case. But what are Arif’s motives? Does he really have feelings for Muzna or are there more sinister motives behind why he and his brother are keen to introduce Muzna to their ideas about what it means to be a ‘true’ Muslim.
I’m not going to tell you the story because that would be an unforgivable spoiler but suffice it to say that this relationship takes Muzna on an extraordinary and dangerous journey into fundamentalist ideology and to what is literally an explosive and breath-taking conclusion.
It’s certainly the case that the novel goes into territory that can be difficult – terrorism, fundamentalism and what it means to be a Muslim in Britain today. But it would be a mistake to think that issues of faith are the only focus of the book – there’s also some tough stuff here about gender discrimination, school life and school culture, friendship, teenage identity, parenting and what it means to love someone.
This is a big, heartfelt and ambitious book and a remarkable start for this young novelist. It will be fascinating to see how his talent develops in the coming years because I’m sure he’ll continue to do things that will capture everyone’s attention.