This book was pitched to me as “Muslim Nancy Drew” and I couldn’t move my fingers fast enough to add it to the TBR-I (To Be Read IMMEDIATELY) list. While the mystery elements sometimes make abrupt turns and some of the secondary characters are a little awkwardly obvious, the core characters of Asiya Haque, her best friend, and her family are just delightful.
Asiya Haque is a Muslim high school senior in Canada who is very protected by her family. She isn’t permitted to be alone with boys. She doesn’t attend after school activities in mixed company. Her world consists of her parents, her younger brother, her school, her masjid (mosque), and her volunteering job at a local nature conservancy – a sore point between Asiya and her mother, as her mother doesn’t trust the people there, and wants Asiya to volunteer at the masjid where she’s appropriately supervised.
The story starts with Asiya’s mother giving her daughter a lecture before she is driven to the conservation center for her job:
Ma pressed the tip of her index finger against the kitchen table to stress the importance of what she was saying.
“When the man and the woman are alone together,” her eyes, open and wide, caught mine, “Satan is the third.”
“Yes, Ma,” I said in my most gentle, most obedient voice. I cleared my throat. “Abbu’s waiting in the car. I should…”
“The only way to be protected is to stay away from the boys.” Ma continued.
Eventually Asiya gets to work, endures another lecture, this time from her boss about being late, and decides to take a walk in the woods behind the nature conservancy offices to take some photographs for them. A boy named Michael, on whom she has a very secret crush, follows her into the woods to talk to her. The narration is from Asiya’s first-person point of view, and her thrill at being able to talk to him is matched and then exceeded by the terror of knowing how much trouble she’ll be in if anyone sees them. At one point Michael reaches out to take her hand, and my heart was in my throat – that’s a serious boundary for Asiya, and exhilaration and joy were mixed with fear and shame until she pulled away from him.
Michael has noticed Asiya, and definitely has a crush on her, too. She tries to maintain the balance between her own wishes (a few more minutes with him) and the expectations placed upon her (her reputation and her family’s will be horribly affected if she’s caught alone with him, let alone with their hands touching) without explaining her actions, but she has trouble keeping herself calm and her actions near what she’d consider normal.
Michael has been aware of Asiya for some time – he knows she’s a great runner, has seen her racing her friends, and asks why she’s not on the track team:
“I can’t do track,” I said. “My…” I didn’t want to have to tell Michael how weird my family was. For once, I just wanted to be here and hang out, like a normal person.
Asiya eventually tells Michael that her family forbids her from any activities:
“Fine.” I shoved the words out as quickly as possible. “My family is Muslim, the strict kind. I don’t run track, or play soccer, or go jogging with guy friends because I’m not allowed.”
“No jogging with guy friends?”
“No guy friends.” I’d meant to say it firmly but my voice might have held a tinge of regret.
Michael shares a secret with her – that he’s older than she thought and has returned to their town to find his birth mother – and they talk a bit more. Michael teases Asiya and convinces her to race him back to the building. On the way back, she trips and falls over what she thinks is a root, but it’s not. It’s the body of a dead woman.
Michael tells Asiya to run back to the office so he can call the police, now understanding a little of the consequences if she’s discovered to have been alone with him – plus, discovering a dead body makes things more complicated. She does, but notices that Michael is very upset, that his eyes are red, and that when she expects to see him taking out his cell phone to call the police, he heads back into the woods instead.
Therein begins the mystery: Asiya learns quickly that the police suspect Michael. She is pretty sure he is innocent, but he’s disappeared. And she learns that Michael had a connection to the dead woman they found. When the police come to her school to talk to students who know him, a officer named Keith harasses her and humiliates her in front of her class until the teacher intervenes and tells Officer Keith there is no way Asiya was with Michael or knows where he is.
Asiya’s lies about how much she knows and who she was with multiply quickly as she has to deceive her parents and her best friend. She wants to help Michael but doesn’t quite know how, and makes a messy attempt to investigate that nearly gets her in bigger trouble. Then her boss is arrested for the murder, and Asiya is more determined to find out what really happened.
The tension is not merely a teenager investigating a murder, obviously – Asiya has to maneuver around and behind the expectations of her family and the rules of her conduct. She shouldn’t be doing much of any of the things she does – going to the dead woman’s apartment, lying about going to the conservancy and going out alone instead – but she’s driven by her own faith and moral determination: to not help when innocent people are accused is unacceptable.
As much as Asiya struggles with the limitations placed on her as a young unmarried woman, she struggles just as much with not wanting to resent her family. She knows why her mother is so protective – at one point, Asiya mentions that her mother wears a hijab while Asiya does not. Asiya recognizes that her mother’s experience in the world outside their home and their masjid is very different and much more negative, scary, and painful than Asiya’s experience. Asiya also knows her family loves her, and she loves them, and wants to respect their rules, and the expectations of the faith she also shares.
She does, however, resent the restrictions and the inconsistent culture of her community that allows boys so more freedom and so little penalty for infraction, as well as those people who report on any rule-breaking and enforce those rules on others with a mixture of shame, gossip, and humiliation.
I really liked that while Asiya is aware of the rules and aware of how she’s breaking them, she’s also aware of how her faith and the lessons of the Prophet influence her determination to investigate the murder. Her Muslim faith is a guide; the rules of her Muslim community are often in her way.
The police officers investigating the murder are suspicious of Asiya, but Asiya doesn’t trust them – with good reason. One of the two police officers intervened years prior when her father was arrested immediately after 9/11, but the other, Officer Keith, tries to intimidate Asiya, repeatedly humiliates her with his ignorant behavior and lack of understanding of her cultural boundaries, and shames her and her family by making a repeated ass of himself. She doesn’t trust the police, she doesn’t trust that particular cop, and she doesn’t trust the authorities in Canada generally who arrested her father because he’s Muslim. She defends herself and her family against Officer Keith’s dislike and prejudice, but she’s also aware she’s obstructing their investigation by not sharing everything she knows.
I’m spending a lot of time talking about the tension between Asiya’s desire to help and her desire to stay out of trouble and not bring shame to her family instead of the mystery part of the book because I think those elements are much stronger than the mystery itself. There aren’t that many characters in the cast, so figuring out who murdered the victim was somewhat easy. The mystery plot and its menacing characters shift positions very abruptly, in contrast with the subtlety and complexity of Asiya’s story inside the whodunit. There’s a sneak peek at the sequel, Mutaweenies and Other Muslim Girl Problems, and I definitely want to read it when it comes out. I hope the mystery is stronger in the sequel. (I’m also not going to explain “Mutaweenies” because Asiya is hilarious, and the development of her term is an extended part of this book and worth reading.)
Asiya’s attraction to Michael motivates her involvement, but the romance itself is minor and always threatened by Asiya’s cultural rules and boundaries. Michael makes some creepy and I think dangerous decisions with regards to Asiya, and he has a lot of ground to make up in terms of accurately and appropriately showing that he does respect her. Her relationship with her best friend (and their subtle management of each other’s families) is lovely, and her feelings for her mother, her brother, and her father are complicated and deeply touching. It’s a very basic but intense struggle, wanting to live up to the expectations placed upon her, but also wanting to do make the right choices for herself and people she cares about, even if her choices go against those expectations.
I really enjoyed this book and the complex and emotional resonance of Asiya’s story helped me overcome the faults of the mystery. Moreover, I simply loved learning about Asiya’s family, her mosque and her perspective. She’s terrific, and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel.
I also want to share the dedication, which I found so touching:
For all the girls who were never told someone like them could, not even in books.