Author: Tahereh Mafi
Page count: 297
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Diverse, Own Voice, Fiction, Inspired by True Events
Blurb as on Goodreads:
It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
I don’t read a lot of contemporary novels. Or pure romances. I read fantasy, romantic suspense, historical fiction but not as much contemporary or diverse books as I’d like to. For one thing, contemporary romances seem to be all about angst and pointless, juvenile drama. Damn, I sound old. I’m really not that old, just not a teen anymore and maybe I’m somewhat wiser. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But I do try to read some contemporaries and diverse books occasionally and I’ve read some amazing ones in the last couple of years.
So when I heard that Tahereh Mafi was coming out with a book that was not fantasy/dystopian but inspired by her own experiences as a Muslim teenager in post-9/11 America, I was going to read it. I really enjoyed the Shatter Me series by her and while that was very different from this one, I knew I had to give this one a chance.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is Shirin’s story as she navigates through her sophomore year at a new school in a new town post the tragic events of 9/11, works hard to ignore all the racist comments and hostility directed at her day after day and keeps patching up and reinforcing the walls she’s built up to protect herself from any more hurt.
“These, the regular injections of poison I was gifted from strangers, were definitely the worst things about wearing a headscarf.”
So I was expecting it to be a pretty heartbreaking/intense story about racism, discrimination, ignorance etc. and I was fully expecting to cry. I was also excited to see a hobby/passion such as breakdancing as an escape to get through the tough times, but I felt that it was overshadowed by the romance. Not in a bad way, just that I was expecting the breakdancing to be a bigger part of the story but it took a secondary role when the storyline turned towards teen romance.
And while there were several incidents that upset and enraged me, it didn’t quite get to the point where I was so upset I couldn’t function. I didn’t cry outright but I was quite vested in the story and the main characters.
“I’d lost a lot in our moves – things, stuff, objects – but nothing hurt as much as losing people.”
I could relate to Shirin to an extent in terms of the frequent moving around, being the new kid at school over and over again, unable to open up, not wanting to build any long-lasting friendships, feeling lonely and angry all the time. But Shirin also faced a lot of prejudice, racism, hostility and stereotyping because of people’s ignorance and immaturity. People fear what they don’t understand.
I got Shirin’s anger, how hard she tries to ignore the barbs and “poisonous injections” all day long and loses herself in music or breakdancing to get through the day. But she had also built such near-impenetrable walls around her heart to avoid more pain and suffering that she also blocked out any potential love, happiness or connection with another, so much so that she didn’t even realize that she was treating people the very same way that she didn’t want to be treated herself. I was happy to see the changes in her throughout the story.
“If they were my friends, they’d be happy for me.”
Ocean is just wonderfully sweet, incredibly genuine and hopeful and so optimistic that he comes across as naïve and blind to the realities of the world around him. I suppose he was all that and more, but that’s not to say that he hadn’t seen some hard times. He just hadn’t dealt with the kind of hostility and irrational hatred that Shirin and other people of color have been facing for so long. But, Ocean had a strength about him and was ready to stand with Shirin and fight instead of running away. I do feel Shirin didn’t treat him all that well at times, frequently doubting his resolve/intentions and avoiding him instead of communicating clearly. But, it’s understandable, I get it. They’re just teens after all.
This story highlighted both, the beautiful and ugly parts, of being human. People can be so mean, irrationally hateful and cruel and make other people’s lives miserable. It was heartbreaking to read all that Shirin and Ocean were put through, and no doubt many people still go through it on a daily basis.
What gives someone the right to interfere in other people’s lives?
Why do they think they have a say in who someone can date or befriend or what they do or don’t?
How do they justify trying to force their beliefs and stupidity on others?
Something to reflect on when evaluating our life choices thus far.
“We broke apart, fighting to breathe, holding on to each other like we were drowning, like we’d been lost, left for dead in a very large expanse of sea.”
I suppose I see things somewhat clearer not being a teenager myself anymore. I was prepared for the book to have a sad ending after everything that happened and leave me sobbing but I like that it ended on a bit of a hopeful note. I didn’t love this book but I cared about the characters, and it made me feel and think. A lot. The short chapters helped too.
I would recommend this book to all teens and young adults, people of color and people who enjoy contemporary or diverse reads. Basically, I’d like everyone to read this book at least once. A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a very important book, the kind of book that we need more of. And I’m really glad I read it.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5
Have you read A Very Large Expanse of Sea? How did you like it? Do share your thoughts with me in the comments below! And if you liked this post, please show some love by liking the post and subscribing to my blog.