I had really high hopes for this YA novel by Samira Ahmed, but unfortunately, this book just did not meet those expectations.
SPOILER ALERT! If you have yet to read this book and you don’t want any of it spoiled for you, I suggest you just stop reading right now, because I’m going to talk about it all.
It’s about a Muslim teenage girl named Layla Amin, living in America after everyone identifying as Muslim has been put on a government list, then fired from their jobs, and finally taken from their homes without notice, given a few minutes to pack their things, without being told where they’re going. They’re taken to an internment camp in the middle of nowhere without any indication as to when they’ll be released. They’re held prisoner, in their own country, for no reason at all.
Things seem fine, at first. They’re all given food and shelter and some of the prisoners start their own school and assign jobs within the community. But no one is allowed contact with the outside world, and after a while, people start disappearing. No warning. No explanation. They’re just gone.
Layla and her friends start organizing protests within the camp, starting with a hunger strike. That’s all fine and well, except Layla constantly seems surprised that there are consequences for her resistance. Every time I just thought, “Really? How did you not see that coming? Where do you think you are right now?”
But she keeps organizing more protests, and continues to be surprised when there are more consequences for her actions. She even teams up with one of the guards who’s supposedly working for the enemy, but he tells her he’s really working for the National Guard, whose objective is to keep Americans safe, not lock them up on the basis of their skin color or religious beliefs.
I kind of hate the whole, “I can’t trust anyone, but I’m going to trust this one person, even though I really shouldn’t, because I really can’t trust anyone here, but maybe just this one person?”
Dude! If you keep saying you can’t trust anyone, then DON’T TRUST ANYONE!
Layla’s friends even warn her (repeatedly) that she should not be teaming up with someone who’s paid to keep them imprisoned, but she just keeps insisting that her gut tells her he’s trustworthy. OK, so her gut turns out to be right, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still hate the entire trope on which their relationship is based.
My other big complaint was about the commander of the camp, who plays the “villain” of the story, to the extent that the story has a villain. The camps and everything going on in them are clearly condoned by the president (who’s never named, but is clearly intended to be a stand-in for Trump), but he’s managed to distance himself from the camps enough that, when the extent of the civil rights violations within the camps are made public, he’s able to escape much, if not all of the blame.
My problem was that the commander was an idiot who is clearly overwhelmed by his Islamophobia, to the point where he allows it to lead him to do reprehensible things in the public eye. Layla and her friends are constantly able to easily outmaneuver the commander due to his self-sabotaging racism, and come on! That’s just too easy. A story without a good villain is not a good story.
Not to mention the fact that it mistakenly portrays all bigots as ineffective idiots, and underestimating bigots is what got us into this mess in the first place. Yes, racism and xenophobia can be irrational, overwhelming, and self-sabotaging, but they can also be incredibly cold and calculating. The fear might be irrational, but the strategies for dealing with the targets of that fear are often all too rational.
One thing I did like is the fact that I listened to the audiobook, and it includes sound effects that enhance the experience. For example, when the commander uses a megaphone, his dialogue sounds like it’s coming from a megaphone. When Layla uses a contraband phone to call her Jewish boyfriend on the outside, you hear the phone ring, and then his dialogue sounds like it’s coming from the other end of a cell phone with not-great reception. There was even a part where someone knocked on Layla’s door and there was a sound effect of someone knocking on a door that had me jumping up to answer my door before I realized it was the audiobook I was listening to and there was no one outside my door.
What did you read/listen to this week? Any other books with a lot of hype that didn’t meet your expectations?