My second book has been completed for the Ramadan Readathon that’s happening for the month of June, and I must say that I was very surprised by it; some of it good, but mostly not so great. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed is an #OwnVoices Pakistani, Islamic literature novel within the young adult genre.
My review is going to be honest and it’s very personal, mostly in relation to a lot of heavy triggers (listed below) that I had experienced while reading the book. I’ll provide my critical, objective review of the book itself, and then I’ll share some subjective musings on it.
The novel follows the first person perspective of an adolescent Pakistani-American girl named Naila, who lives in Florida with her parents and her brother. She’s a senior in high school about to graduate. Her super conservative parents have told Naila that she has can dress and do her hair however she wishes, to study whatever interests her, and to listen to the music she likes. Naila is essentially free to live her life as she wishes as long as she respects her parents and follows their only rule: no dating and no falling in love is allowed. Her parents will choose her future husband when the time is right. Unfortunately feelings aren’t things that we can control as much as we try to, which is illustrated with Naila when she falls in love with a Muslim boy named Saif. When her parents discover this, all hell breaks loose (not literally, but pretty damn close to it). In an effort to instil more cultural roots into Naila’s life, they take her to Pakistan for the summer, far away from Saif.
The first thing that I liked about the novel is the message it portrays. I can’t really explain this without giving away spoilers, which I don’t want to do. But in today’s society, especially in cultures and places where women are oppressed simply for being women (yes, this occurs outside of Islamic and Asian communities), sometimes the things that we are forced to undergo are absolutely unbearable and wholeheartedly unspeakable, depending on the situation. These traumatic events, need to be told in such a way to reach out and help another woman find strength, and to help keep their voices from being silenced. When I think about Written in the Stars, this is what resonates the most with me. While the book was extremely difficult to read, Naila’s experiences and what she’s forced to go through is something that I genuinely feel can be helpful to a young girl or woman out there struggling with similar situations or conflicts. Part of facing the things that make us uncomfortable includes looking it in the eyes to find the will to fight it rather than sit in a dark room and cower from it. That’s why this book is so important. It pushes you into the light, where you are strongest, even if you can’t recognise that strength.
Aside from the message and the underlying importance of the novel, other things that worked well for it is how compelling the plot is. You end up formulating a silent bond with Naila, one you don’t discover exists until you find yourself rooting for her, praying and wishing for her to escape her plight. This connection contributes to the book being immensely fast-paced. I read the entire thing in the span of a 24-hour period, which is saying a lot for a slow reader like me.
Yet these are the only facets that make the title redeemable as a book. While the premise was quite imperative and provocative, the execution falls short in numerous ways.
Let’s start with Naila herself, specifically her relationship with Saif. We receive some tender moments in the beginning chapters of their relationship that gives a lot of “cute and fluffy” vibes, but there is no actual depth to their chemistry. I felt a whole lot of disconnect between them. The cute moments are sweet enough to make you feel warmth at the affection they have for one another, but it’s entirely one-dimensional. The romantic build-up necessary for their relationship to feel like an “epic romance” was totally non-existent. Because the book is from Naila’s perspective, you do start to feel the power behind the love that she has for Saif, but you never really get that from Saif himself. He felt more like a plot prop rather than a key component for the story, at least until the very last pages.
Every single character in the book, aside from Naila and maybe two or three others, are empty vessels that turn into a blur of letters and blank faces. Once she touches down in Pakistan, names and vague descriptives are tossed at you from all directions, but there’s nothing cohesive to set one person apart from the next. I mostly imagined them as shadows dressed in vibrant colours where applicable. You end up putting actions to particular names and discerning them that way, which isn’t a very good way to build atmosphere or setting involving large families.
The writing utilises a lot of Urdu words and phrases, which can be slightly off-putting to people who don’t speak the language, or have any idea what the culture is like. The author does provide a glossary for these terms in the back of the book, and that’s really awesome (some authors don’t even bother), but while you’re knee-deep with intense feels, it can be slightly jarring.
Please note: I feel that I should I be honest and mention that I enjoyed these Urdu words quite a lot, personally. It felt homey to me and I was able to empathise with so much because of the cultural connection. However, the thought of it being awkward for non-Urdu speakers, and folks unfamiliar with Pakistani-Islamic culture pilfered itself into my brain throughout the book. So, I reached out to a friend of mine who had read it to gauge this a bit better. I hope that is okay. The friend is a non-Urdu speaking Japanese-American.
Other titbits that I didn’t care for was the continuous feeling of dread, anxiety, and frustration that kept eating away at me. I can admit that this last musing is most likely due in part to the triggers that affected me, but I still felt I should mention it as a disclaimer. The book gets unbearably depressing and enraging. The tension that starts to wrap itself around you while you follow along Naila’s journey, at times can feel like a noose that’s just suffocating you. I did need to take a break for a few hours to recover, where I almost didn’t pick it back up.
Critically, Written in the Stars had tons of potential for being an extraordinary piece of literature. But shoddy writing and a staggeringly lack of atmosphere-building, or character descriptives, made it feel extrinsically sub-par.
2 outta 5.
A very, very good friend of mine underwent an experience that is terribly close to what Naila undergoes. Unfortunately, she ended up committing suicide to escape her situation. While it was a few years ago, it’s something that sticks with me, and did traumatise me to quite an extent. Reading this book brought so much of that back and it was so heartbreaking and painful, I can’t fully express it in words. The best way to describe it would be to say that it was like ripping open a scar that had healed decades ago. I have anxiety and panic disorders that were horribly triggered due to these experiences and the contents of the book. In spite of that, I finished every last page. Because of what happened to her, I can see the message of the book, I can feel the importance of it, and that is why I think the book should be read. If not for the quality, then most definitely for that message. It’s so vital. Girls need to know that they can fight and they don’t have to let this happen to them.
TRIGGER WARNINGS: Physical abuse. Psychological and emotional abuse (severe). Forced drug & substance abuse. Rape. Anxiety and panic triggering situations in relation to intense psychological trauma.