Boy vs. Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

boyvsgirl“Farhana’s  hijab felt heavy now, heavier than it had ever been.  Heaver than when her mum questioned her about it, making her feel as if she had done the wrong thing, that she was on her way to becoming an ‘extremist’.  Heaver than when she found that she was no longer the centre of attention at school.  Heaver than when, after the initial honeymoon period when her wearing the hijab was a novelty and a number of the girls had admired her brave decision, the hype moved elsewhere.”

Farhana and her twin brother Faraz are struggling with life-changing decisions this Ramadan season.  Farhana is trying to decide whether she wants to wear the hijab full-time, even if it probably means losing the attentions a handsome classmate.  Faraz is conflicted, as well:  he’s so bullied at school, for being sensitive and artistic, that he can’t stand it anymore.  Does he pursue his art, or join the gang that promises protection?  During the holiday month, the two struggle with their feelings about religion, freedom, and doing what’s right for themselves.  For Farhana, this means going against her parents’ wishes for her, and for Faraz, it means something far more dangerous.  Ramadan bring change and self-awareness to both twins.

This novel is reminiscent of The Outsiders, with its devoted siblings, clear (to the point of preachiness) distinction between right and wrong, and hey-I’ll say it- the street gangs.   The central conflict is one of identity: what role does faith and religion play in the lives of the twins?  What role would they like it to play?  Farhana’s mother is firmly against her covering herself-she doesn’t want her daughter to lose opportunities or be discriminated against.  Farhana must decide whether she wishes to defy her parents and wear the hijab, or if she’d rather not make such a public declaration of her beliefs.  Faraz knows what Allah says he should do, but it’s so hard to resist the brotherhood and protection of the neighborhood gang.  When a tragedy threatens Farhana’s life, Faraz understands what he must do, even if it feels impossible.

The exploration of identity, religion, and the social universe of the high schoolers makes for fascinating, if not entirely original, reading.  Na’ima Robert brings us a traditional coming-of-age story, but viewed through a different cultural lens.  While the story occasionally veers into a cautionary tale-style narrative, the exploration of deep belief is worth reading.  Robert portrays Farhana’s religious self-searching skillfully and sensitively.  I’d like to know what you think of this one!  It’s a relatively recent book with a very fifties’ feel to it, that’s for sure.

Happy Reading!

Robert, Na’ima. Boy vs. Girl. Francis Lincoln Books: London, 2010.

If you’re interested in reading more books like this one, you might like:

Does My Head Look Big in This? 

The Garden of My Imaan

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever.

I’d like to invite you to read a blog post on this book written by someone who was displeased with this book, as she felt it didn’t realistically address teenagers’ problems, while at the same time it was upholding a “pure” Islam.  Hop on over and see what Sara Yasin at Muslim Media Watch has to say about Boy vs. Girl.

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Chime by Franny Billingsley

“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.

Now, if you please.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story.  I can’t relive those memories-the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.

How could you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies.  A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.”

Briony conceals her second sight and forces herself to use her right hand because in Swampsea, witches are hanged, and Briony absolutely, positively, must not die.  Dying, you see, would break her promise: she must always live so she may take care of Rose.  Briony’s life is consumed with care for her identical twin, Rose, in an attempt at penance for a childhood accident that irreparably changed her. However,what is she to do when saving her sister’s life means that Briony must sacrifice her own?

Briony’s scrupulously honest, don’t-pity-me, prickly demeanor does nothing to conceal her vulnerability; she is a multi-dimensional artwork of a narrative persona, relating a chilling tale of secrets, bargains with spirits, and subterfuge. Furthermore, she’s unreliable: readers are unsure exactly what the truth is. Briony hates everything, including herself, and Billingsley’s masterful characterization prevents her from reading as selfish or irritating. You’ll love the distilled gems of bleaks humor like this:  “Skipping meals is terrifically convenient: It gives one lots of time to brood and hate oneself”.

The language itself is another reason to love this story.  In an interview, Franny Billingsley said that she drew inspiration from the wordplay in folk songs and ballads, and definitely adds another layer of appeal to the novel.  Words invert and rhyme, creating an interesting textual parallel for the reader’s changing perceptions of the characters and the story as layer after layer of deception is excoriated.  Adding to the literary complexity of the work is the story’s structure! It’s not difficult to follow, but hearing the tale backwards, from the moment we know Briony is to die, brings a sense of urgency to the story. Finally, even though we begin the story knowing the ending already, Billingsley manages to keep us wondering and worrying about it.

This creepy and enthralling novel was a finalist for the National Book Award last year, amid some controversy.  I found it a combination of delightful elements that are so often honored by the award, including high literary merit.  Furthermore, the romance (yes, there’s romance, but I promise it isn’t offensively saccharine!) is based on equality and mutual respect and tenderness, which is delightful to see in these paranormal books, as they often rely on tired stereotypes of straight relationships.  The one concern I have is one the author herself has also acknowledged, that of the “beauty barrier”.  Books about non-beautiful young women are disappointingly scarce, and this is no different.  Billingsley missed a perfect opportunity to give us a complex and appealing heroine while also affirming the importance of other values besides traditional beauty.

That said, if you love witches and swamps and the feeling you get when you read Jane Eyre, this one’s for you.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.frannybillingsley.com

Billingsley, Franny. Chime. New York, Speak, 2011. 361 pp. Ages 14 and up.

If you liked this one, you can rejoice: the author claims she has two related novels she is working on!  While you are waiting, you can check out books like Beauty and Ash and  Castle Waiting (for the feminist graphic-novel antidote to the stereotypical beautiful heroine) and Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyrefor the classic take on creepiness.