July 26, 2018

A Girl Like That

Written by Tanaz Bhathena
Farrar Straus Giroux
369 pp.
Ages 13-18
February 2018

Zarin Wadia, sixteen, is A Girl Like That. She's seen as provocative, rebellious, and clever but her story is one of tragedy from birth to her death.

Zarin's death, along with that of a young man, Porus Dumasia, in a car accident is not a surprise ending. It begins the book with Zarin's guardians, Masi (mother's sister) and Masa (maternal uncle), and Porus's mother wailing over the dead teens. How they got there which is essentially Zarin's back story is the story of A Girl Like That. Told in multiple voices of Zarin, Porus, a gossipy classmate Mishal, and a boy Farhan with whom Zarin becomes involved, Tanaz Bhathena's first young adult novel is a study in nature vs. nurture for a teen whose origins were considered shameful and whose upbringing was rife with physical and emotional abuse. 
Memories...can be like splinters, digging into you when you least expect them to, holding tight and sharp the way wood did when it slid under a fingernail. (pg. 27)
Zarin is never made to feel like she belongs. Not with her Masi and Masa who take her in after her unmarried mother's death or at Qala Academy, the school she attends after they move from India to Saudi Arabia. She is shamed at home by her abusive and mentally ill Masi–and infrequently defended by Masa–for her illegitimacy, her gangster father and issues related to her being a girl. At school, a place where rumours are currency, especially for Mishal the anonymous BlueNiqab blogger and gossip monger, Zarin's classmates look down their noses at her for her heritage and standoffish ways. Still, Zarin endures. She hides the abuses and thumbs her nose at those who shame her. She smokes and she goes riding in cars with boys, an offense according to Sharia law.

And then her childhood Parsi friend, Porus, moves to Jeddah with his mother after the death of his beloved father. Zarin and Porus resume their friendship though it is an unconventional one, with Porus completely smitten and Zarin dating other boys and not sure she is capable of loving anyone. When Zarin is the victim of an assault by Farhan, her world at home and school dissolves into a muddy mess of anger, gossip, shaming, and revenge, with Zarin's desperately searching for courage and safety, within and without.

A Girl Like That is garnering much attention because of Tanaz Bhathena's story about gender inequality and religion-based social restrictions in Saudi Arabia. By focusing on a world that is intimate to many but foreign to so many others, Tanaz Bhathena is both honouring those who live Zarin's life and educating those unfamiliar with the restrictions and distinctions of living with abuse, segregation, cultural discrimination, gender inequality and religious policing.  But beyond the cultural milieu, A Girl Like That is still a statement about the need for self-expression, to fight self and others, to become who you are. Zarin's story is still a tragedy for the abuses inflicted upon her by family, both young men and women, and her cultures but she finds a way to fly, even without wings.
Because a bird only learns to fly when its wings are broken. (pg. 318)

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