A Very Large Expanse of Sea

“If the decision you’ve made has brought you closer to humanity, then you’ve done the right thing.” 

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
310 pages
Genre: Young Adult
Published by Harper, 2018
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Indiana
Spoiler-free review

Set shortly after 9/11 in the United States, this novel follows Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl. She’s starting new yet again at a different school as her parents go from job to job, always moving for different opportunities.

Shirin has worn a hijab her whole life and it’s not that she’s never gotten comments about it, but since 9/11, things have escalated and she’s been physically and verbally assaulted on her way home from her old school on more than one occasion.

So she doesn’t hold much hope for her new school. On her first day, people say a lot of stupid and horrible things to her, as many teens experience. But there’s one other student who doesn’t and seems confusingly interested in how her day is going: Ocean James.

After much stop and go, they strike up a friendship of sorts. Meanwhile, Shirin joins her older brother in forming a breakdancing club. They practice after school and while she doesn’t have much in the way of friends outside of the group, they become her support group.

But things get more complicated as the year goes on and she and Ocean become more than friends. He’s the star basketball player in a school that cares only about basketball and many in the school see Shirin as a distraction and a “unAmerican” one at that. People start to harass and ridicule Shirin, trying to get her to break up with Ocean.

Even though Shirin is a strong character —  most other students find her to be pretty fierce —  she starts to think of her future with Ocean and how their life might have this sort of tension well beyond high school.

She grapples with not only her emotions, but with pressure from nearly everyone in her life (perhaps outside of her parents) and with discrimination from people who she should be able to depend on.

This was a powerfully written book and it was heartbreaking to think about how many young teens went through similar things, and who could still be facing similar discrimination. When 9/11 happened, I was too young to really understand its implications and it wasn’t until years later that I actually understood what happened and started to grasp its impact on the country and the world.

The only thing that didn’t feel quite right with me was the pacing. There were a few chapters that were focused more on character development than on plot development and I think it made the middle feel a bit long. Yet, the last quarter of the book was a burst of events. I wanted to know so much more at the end than there was time for. Hopefully there will be a sequel of some sort!

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