Book review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Title: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Publisher: HarperTeen

Publication date: 16 October 2018

Genre: Contemporary| Young adult

Page extent: 310 pages

Goodreads blurb: 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. 

What an absolutely wonderful book!! You can tell this book was so personal to the author because the emotion, the relevance, the relatability are all so strong, it’s just so stunning. 

Shirin can’t remember life before 9/11. That was when it changed. Before, she was just another slightly odd person on the street. Now she’s the enemy. She’s branded a terrorist. She is attacked verbally, physically, mentally, wherever she goes. So, she puts up a front: she is unbothered by the stares and accusations, unbothered by the treatment. She puts earbuds in and listens to music to help her ignore the world around her. 

But when her brother starts a breakdancing crew, and when Ocean enters her world, her well fought stance to stay unbothered changes. Because Ocean is nice, and kind, and says stupid idiot things but he’s so kind and loving and he makes her want to pretend the world isn’t awful. But it is. And whilst Ocean doesn’t want to accept it, Shirin doesn’t want him to be hurt by what will happen if suddenly she’s seen with the star basketball player and darling of the school, Ocean.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is such an honest and brutal tale. From the constant microaggressions Shirin suffers through, to the utter hate which follows her and Ocean getting together, to the pain and despair she feels at having to hurt Ocean to help him, it’s such an entrancing and beautifully painful read. Told from Shirin’s POV results in so much insight and exploration of her feelings, we can see how much she struggles to stay unbothered and strong, to see how she wants to open up to Ocean, but doesn’t trust the world around her to let her be (and she’s right…) But we also see her change from the intimidating, unflinching person at the start of the book, to someone who has learned how to open up and how to trust, and accepts that maybe she doesn’t have to be so closed off anymore. It’s such a remarkable coming of age tale, and beautiful to see Shirin’s thoughts and emotions as she deals with both hate and love. 

Ocean is also such a lovely character. We seem him fight for Shirin without understanding of the consequences, too caught up in his privilege to see the truth, and so it comes as such a shock when the fallout happens. But he’s so determined to stand up to everyone around him because Shirin is worth it (she is SO fucking worth it, because she is awesome). 

I loved the element of breakdancing – it was interesting to see Shirin’s confidence grow across the novel, as she grew herself, and I loved the joy that was felt on the pages when she danced. 

The book will also truly open people’s eyes to the hate and constant aggression Muslims face, as well as the very real, very awful impact this has. I’d love to say this book will change people’s behaviour – and I really hope it does, because it bloody well should. But I can’t say I have that much faith in humanity. 

This book was such a beautiful romance, with a clearly personal touch from the author. It was so lovely to read and the last few lines were just absolutely brilliant 😭😭

Paws out,
Rach + Draco

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