Review of “A Very Large Expanse of Sea” by Tahereh Mafi

This short young adult novel about Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim girl in 2002, born in America to Iranian parents, has won numerous awards, including a nomination for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2018.

Shirin and her older brother Navid have moved a lot, because her parents are always trying to improve their lives. Navid has an easier time adjusting than Shirin; he is a good-looking male who can protect himself, and perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t wear a head scarf, as does Shirin.

Shirin has a virtual spike-covered wall around her to protect her from the slings and arrows of degrading, ill-informed, and cruel insults from fellow high schoolers and even high school teachers. Since the attack on 9/11, however, it has gotten much worse. Mostly she tries to tune it all out (literally) by listening to music all day through headphones that are invisible because of her hijab. She also works out her frustrations physically by practicing break-dancing after school with her brother and some of his friends.

She thinks she is weak though because she does get hurt: “I still cared too much. I was still so easily, pathetically, punctured.”

Shirin won’t stop wearing the hijab though; she likes, and even needs, the power she feels it gives her over her own body. But Shirin is stronger than she realizes, and remarkably mature and self-confident, and that also helps. After one of her teachers subjected her to an incredibly insensitive episode in class, she wanted to drop his class, and he tried to convince her to stay. She told him:

“‘I’m tired as hell, Mr. Jordan. I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way.’ I shook my head, hard. ‘I’m just — I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job?’”

Her newly assigned bio partner, Ocean James, a year older at 17, is different than the rest. He is kind, funny, and seems genuinely interested in getting to know Shirin. He willingly admits his ignorance over her culture and expresses embarrassment about it. And Shirin finds it harder and harder to resist his overtures. But if they were to have a relationship, could it hold up against the reaction of their classmates and the community at large? Furthermore, while Shirin knows from past experience what to expect, she worries over how would it affect Ocean. She feels the need to protect him from what she knows will happen; his white privilege has made him oblivious to the particular cruelty he would be facing by being open about his feelings for Shirin. And yet, it is so hard to resist the pull toward him she feels.

Discussion: Mafi said in an interview that this novel was inspired by her own time in high school. One shudders to think about what kids who are “different” in any way have to endure. But if anyone can bring the emotions to life that teens experience, it is Mafi, who’s Shatter Me series shows that she has a unique talent for remembering exactly what it is like to be young, to hurt, to love, to feel passion, to be confused, and to learn to tap into resiliency and strength. For those looking for romance, there are few better than Mafi, but she couches her relationships in commentary on important social issues, so that her books are more than just stories about runaway hormones.

Evaluation: This is an excellent book that will resonate with teens who are made to feel like pariahs in high school, as well as for those just looking for a swoony novel.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

Author Tahereh Mafi

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1 Response to Review of “A Very Large Expanse of Sea” by Tahereh Mafi

  1. Jeanne says:

    I wonder about hijab propoganda (“the power she feels it gives her over her own body”) in this increasingly Gileadean-feeling decade. I remember the scene with a tourist who asked the handmaid how she felt about the burqa-like garment she was compelled to wear, and how the handmaid had to say she liked it.

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