I’m about to start university again, so I’m thanking past me for writing a lot of book reviews. Will they be enough to get me through the semester? Only time will tell. However, this is a very good book and you should definitely read my review thx.
Title: A Girl Like That
Author: Tanaz Bathena
Genre: YA Contemporary, but NOT a fluffy romance
Themes: Feminism, abuse, sexuality in Saudi Arabia, Indian immigrant experiences in places that are not the West
This book was very hard to read. It’s not about nice topics. It’s gritty and realistic and isn’t doesn’t sugarcoat. At times, I had to stop reading, and have a break from the grim reality it described. But while it hurt to read, it was also well done.
A Girl Like That is about Zarin. You could argue that she was unrealistic; her life was too tragic. The book begins with her death on a motorway in Saudi Arabia, after all. She’s an orphan and abused by her aunt and uncle. But I think while fairly well off Indian expatriates wouldn’t normally have such dire backstories, the combination of this served as an extremely effective character depiction that showed how vulnerable random circumstances can make you.
I think this book made a fairly large splash when it came out last year, but I didn’t know anything about it until I checked it out. So, a quick description: the main character is Zarin. The idea is that when she dies, many people think that ‘a girl like that’—rebellious, flirty, asking for trouble—had it coming. But then the story backtracks. Zarin, several boys she dated, Porus (the boy who dies with her in the car), and Mishal, from Zarin’s school, all narrate. They explain who they are, why they did various mean things they did, who they were to Zarin. A story is built: everyone has pain, everyone has done wrong things. By the end of the book, there aren’t clear good guys and bad guys, just people who have done wrong things, and regretted it.
This is the first book I’ve read (and the first YA book I’ve heard of) set in Saudi Arabia. Most of the characters, however, are Indian immigrants, and their school system is Indian. The setting was extremely effective and I think it was used excellently. It’s cleverly set slightly before women were allowed to drive. It shows a Saudi where women and girls have little legal power (but some where it comes to…womanly wiles, shall we say), where censorship is rife, where sons are ruined by entitlement, a society practically built on inequality. Jeddah was well described and unique, this coastal town in the middle of a desert defying life. I liked that I understood the Indian school system and lots of their words, and to an extent the experience of being Indian overseas.
This book is a bit like Wonder, giving several characters a chance to speak and showing more about who they are, while focusing on a central character (I also watched Wonder recently which helps). I think Bhathena did a very good job making the story connect while focusing on character, character, character. The way A Girl Like That started with the end, which was interesting. As you may guess, plot wasn’t the main focus, which was okay. However, it was sometimes hard to keep track of what was going on, and the perspective switching did take some getting used to.
The book then backtracked (the storyline generally jumped around a bit which wasn’t perfectly clear) to about a year and a half previously, and built back up to the ending, by which time you were able to totally rethink the first scene, why and how it had happened and who the people were. This was refreshing and definitely lent the book a new angle: you knew the ending, but on the way became invested in the other characters and the lead up.
Quick note: I just saw a review that accused A Girl Like That of being Islamophobic and mysogynistic, with a lot of girl-on-girl hate and the only Muslims men being depicted as terrible people. I can see where that reviewer is coming from, and I guess I can’t say how realistic it was, having no experience of Saudi, but it felt realistic, and the author did live in Saudi Arabia for a good while. And I think it was trying to make a point; yes, there are many wonderful Muslim people, and the things depicted are not necessarily the norm. However, I think that all these things do exist and that describing it reminds us of our privilege. I don’t know.
A Girl Like That deals with grim themes: domestic abuse, rape, poverty, drug abuse. But it’s also a message of hope: one character ultimately escapes a fate that seems inevitable, as others feel remorse. And we know (or hope) that Saudi is getting better as well. I learned so much about this strange country where oil is ‘as cheap as water’. It was very well done, and I highly recommend it to anyone wanting a book that makes them think. 4.5 stars.