May 09, 2013

An Infidel in Paradise

by S. J. Laidlaw
Tundra Books
978-1-77049-304-9
311 pp.
Ages 12+
February, 2013


in·fi·del
noun \ˈin-fə-dəl, -fə-ˌdel\
1 : one who is not a Christian or who opposes Christianity
2 a : an unbeliever with respect to a particular religion b : one who acknowledges no religious belief
3 : a disbeliever in something specified or understood
Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/infidel on May 8, 2013

Under this definition of infidel, just about anyone could be called an infidel.  Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics - all could be considered infidels by another group.  Yet the scathing judgement that is leveled against sixteen-year-old Emma as a Canadian teen forced to live in Islamabad, Pakistan is especially outrageous; she doesn't want to be there anymore than anyone else wants her there.

After her dad takes off with the family maid from their posting in Manila, Emma Grey's family (older brother Vince, younger sister Mandy and Mom) relocate to Pakistan for her mother's job, running the consular section of the Canadian embassy. Though embassy children are used to moving around a lot, the whole "make-new-friends and learn-to-fit-in" process required to make lifetolerable seems more problematic for Emma this time, probably because of her father's absence and mother's absorption in her work and obliviousness to her children's needs.  Emma is resentful of her mother for forcing them to move (this was a weak effort to make Dad choose between his family and new partner), and for expecting more of Emma specifically, including mothering eight-year-old Mandy.  Not surprising that Emma is brutally honest when asked by a new classmate, Mustapha Khan, how she is enjoying Pakistan.
"Well," I begin, feeling the familiar anger wakening like a beast inside me, "there's not a single mall, movie theater, or Caramel Frappuccino within a thousand miles, but there are huge poisonous reptiles, beggars on every street corner and all the atmosphere of a maximum-security penitentiary.  I'm just surprised there's not more tourism." (pg. 21-22)
 Ouch.  Not the way to make friends and influence people apparently.  Although she is quickly welcomed by Angie, a girl from the American compound, and introduced to her friends, Leeza, Jazzy and Tahira, Emma's candour and insistence on personal freedom place her at odds with several students, including Aisha, Mustapha's wealthy "promised" one, and Faarooq, protective and strict brother of Tahira.

All conflict is compounded when Mustapha continues to pay attention to Emma, much to Aisha's irritation, and Emma and Mustapha are thrown into a drama group with Faarooq and another boy Ali to produce a skit about conflict, first focusing on a racist American girl (hint?) and then on a Pakistani boy who likes a Canadian girl.  And, although Emma enlists Angie's help to avoid being alone with Mustapha, knowing that she is attracted to him, she and Mustapha are repeatedly thrown together, sometimes because he chooses to be with her and sometimes because he wants to be kind.  It all makes for much cultural and romantic confusion.

I can't imagine the transient lifestyle of foreign service families and the particular skills that the children must need to navigate new lives successfully.  Couple that with divorced parents and living with a workaholic mother and in a tenuous political-religious situation, and you've got all the makings of a disaster.  S. J. Laidlaw thankfully has given Emma the wicked sense of humour, common sense and heart to find a way to help Mandy and herself, as well as carve a niche for themselves in their new world.  She finds a source of wisdom, recognizing the value in the kind and comforting Mr. Akbar, and has enough insight to recognize her own flaws and address them as she can.

S. J. Laidlaw could have imbued "An Infidel in Paradise" with the same resentment that is implied in the scathing indictment of "Infidel!" leveled against Emma but she does not.  Instead, she plays with the idea that the safety of "inside", whether it be the compound, one's comfort zone or culture, and the danger of "outside" is not always the case.  It has more to do with perception and broaching that transition with caution in an effort to make both territories manageable.  Even Emma is able to find herself accepting her new life as "An Infidel in Paradise."

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