Janna Yusuf is an ordinary teenager who sometimes has fights with her single mother, who loves to read and works hard for school. But she is also the girl who wears an hijab, who does voluntary work with her elderly neighbour and who is in love with a non-Muslim boy named Jeremy. Her life is already complicated enough, but then her brother moves back in and courts Saint Sarah, the perfect and angelic girl of the community. And then there is Farooq who has been memorizing the Quran and is the preferred wunderkind of the community. But this is just one side of him, Janna also knows the other face of him: Farooq the stalker and molester who tried to rape her. Caught between those extremes in her life, Janna tries to find out who she is and which values she wants to follow in her life.
This is not just a typical coming-of-age novel of a young girl struggling with typical teenage problems. What is most interesting in S.K. Ali’s novel is the fact of living between two cultures or better: between two worlds which collide from time to time and which expect different codes to be obeyed from the people walking in them.
Janna is a really lovable character. She is neither the perfect nor the rebellious teenager, she shows different moods and has good days and bad days. She is a caring person, but nevertheless admits that taking care of her neighbour is paid which is an advantage. Yet, she enjoys spending time with the old man who triggers her reflection about herself and life. She is also quite attentive and a minute observer of the behaviour of her classmates and the people around her. She knows the rules of the Quran and follows them, but at times, she also wants to be free and live the life according to her own standards. The author portrays those contradictions in the girls really convincingly and thus paints a multifaceted picture of Janna.
Apart from the question which or rather whose expectations a believing young woman will fulfil, there was one aspect which I myself as a Christian found pretty noteworthy. Janna has a friend who wears a niqab. She herself has only decided for a headscarf which she only takes off for her all-girl sports lessons or at home. But when she feels increasingly stalked by Farooq, she begins to wonder about wearing a niqab which could make her disappear from the people’s sight. A completely covered woman becomes invisible and she would like to be unseen at times. From her story it is easy to follow and understand this thought and I think it is an important aspect in the discussion about Muslim women and their covering.
Even though I highlighted the religious ones, there are many more interesting and remarkable aspects in the novel which make it for me an absolutely outstanding book in the mass of coming-of-age novels. The cast of characters is unique and none of them is flat and one-dimensional, the plot itself offers much food for thought and is all but the typical off-the-rack foreseeable novel of the genre.