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FICTION: DEAD GIRL CALLING

September 02, 2018

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The King Fahd Fountain is one of the most famous landmarks in Jeddah. In a departure from the West-centric norm, Tanaz Bhathena sets her story of a rebellious, misunderstood teen in the Saudi Arabian city | Wikimedia Commons
The King Fahd Fountain is one of the most famous landmarks in Jeddah. In a departure from the West-centric norm, Tanaz Bhathena sets her story of a rebellious, misunderstood teen in the Saudi Arabian city | Wikimedia Commons

Recent decades have seen an exponential increase in interest in the Young Adult (YA) novel with more and more authors choosing to write for this target market. Popular television adaptations and blockbuster films ensure that the market keeps on growing. Adding to this is the campaign in certain publishing circles to increase diversity by including authors who aren’t straight, white and Western to people’s reading lists, which has led to the emergence of a certain type of YA that tackles being young and Muslim or existing in a Muslim world.

Tanaz Bhathena’s A Girl Like That includes everything one would encounter in a standard YA novel: young love, peer pressure, the desire to know who you are and the inability to move beyond other people’s perceptions of us. It is also about so much more than that. As the blurb on the cover states, our heroine is dead before her story even begins. With her body discovered in a brutal highway accident in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Bhathena’s protagonist Zarin Wadia tells us her story backwards –– the narrative unfolding through flashbacks and interspersed with other people’s perspectives. One might assume that a dead protagonist wouldn’t make for a character one would particularly care for, but Bhathena proves this is not the case.

At the beginning, we get an idea of the girl herself: uncontrollable, a wild child with a bad reputation. As her aunt and uncle stand beside the wrecked car, Zarin hovers above them next to Porus, a young boy from the same community as her. Bhathena introduces us to the community right there and then: as opposed to the Western-centric stories we are used to, her characters are Zoroastrians hailing from Mumbai, India. This book, therefore, isn’t just about a teenager’s life, it is also a cultural calling, an introduction to ways of living that might not be familiar to many readers, particularly those in the West. At the same time it serves as representation to people who might have never seen themselves in the written word before.

A Young Adult novel that is much more than the usual and tackles issues of religion, culture, mental health and abuse

Using Jeddah as a setting introduces us to the religious aspect of a Muslim society more conservative than most. With the religious police questioning why a boy and a girl were present in a car together in the first place, we begin our first steps towards understanding how complex the relationship between society, religion and gender is.

These factors — which one can’t control, but which determine so much of a person’s reputation — are highlighted repeatedly throughout the book. Having a dancer mother and a thug for a father, Zarin already bears the baggage of disreputable and deceased parentage, and the relatives who adopt her are a different sort of trouble. Her aunt, called Masi in Zarin’s native Gujarati language, has mental health issues which go untreated and her cancerous, oppressive love for her niece comes forth in the form of an abusive relationship. With her uncle providing no protection, Zarin also remains friendless at school and finds comfort in sneaking away to smoke on the school’s roof.

Slowly, through multiple flashbacks such as those of the classmate who hates Zarin, the good-looking guy whom Zarin dates and her old friend Porus, we find out more about this troubled girl. The multiple viewpoints have the potential to be a confusing, jumbled mess, but Bhathena handles them well, showing a little at a time, keeping the curiosity alive while drawing complex, three dimensional figures.

Porus and Zarin meet as children living in a Mumbai colony. While he grows into a sweet young man who forms a slow, steady friendship with the girl with the sharp tongue, she has had to learn to take care of herself amidst the gossip of her classmates, social exclusion and the abuse of her aunt. This has made her wild and rebellious, prone to sneaking out to hang with boys and smoke a few cigarettes. However, as the story progresses we realise she is a girl with depths, capable of gentleness and empathy in the midst of a life that offers her no breaks. As the narrative moves along, we meet people who came and touched Zarin’s life in different ways — some good, some bad. We encounter trauma and sexual abuse and Bhathena provides perspectives from the victim as well as the assailant in a powerful scene that is realistic without being gratuitous. The conclusion brings us back full circle to that hot afternoon with the car crash and a far greater realisation of how a life such as Zarin’s isn’t only about what reputation one leaves behind.

In a rare feat — considering how regularly characters of this age group are written in unrealistic, adult voices — Bhathena’s teenagers sound like teenagers. The trials and tribulations of this age are deftly handled and given proper attention. Parents having adulterous affairs, the lure of drugs and the pressure of one’s peers, youthful friendships that can destroy or build lives, all are part of the landscape that Bhathena explores through her flawed but honest characters.

More fascinating than her characters, however, is the setting she has used. They say one should write what one knows; no matter how controversial this advice may be, it has worked to the author’s advantage as she was born in India and grew up in Jeddah. Her familiarity with the setting lends authority to her descriptions, making her storyline authentic and her narrative believable. At times it does seem that the novel is pandering to a very Western audience, with its explanations of every single thing that might sound unfamiliar, but that also helps readers — who may not know much about the Zoroastrian faith or Gujarati family life — understand what the terms mean. One hopes that one day books from that part of the world are more widespread, allowing us to read them without needing such guides of helpful terms at the end of the book, but for now, they can prove quite useful to the unacquainted reader.

With a clear grasp of the politics of a region such as Saudi Arabia as well as an honest look at how religion and culture can be used to limit and criticise, Bhathena writes a novel that is both relevant and needed. The current rise of the #Metoo movement, along with an increased interest in conversations of sexual abuse, means that books such as this are more urgent than ever before.

The reviewer is an editor of children’s fiction

A Girl Like That
By Tanaz Bhathena
Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, US
ISBN: 978-0374305444
384pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 2nd, 2018