In 1969 sixteen-year-old Melati Ahmad and her best friend Safiyah (Saf) leave school when classes finish for the day and head to the Rex Theater to see Paul Newman (whom Saf adores) in his latest film. Mel’s mom, a nurse, is at work, and Saf’s notoriously strict dad won’t be home til late, so it’s the perfect opportunity for them to slip away, have some fun, and flirt with the cute boy in the marketplace that Saf likes. Although there are murmurs of political unrest in the area, the two friends see nothing amiss as they go about their afternoon activities.
That is, Saf, who is perpetually happy, sunny and unworried, does. Mel, on the other hand, has been since the death of her father in the grip of a djinn, a powerful evil spirit who speaks to her continually, showing her images of her mother dying gruesome deaths. Even though her alarmed mom seeks treatments for Mel’s OCD behavior, Mel is compelled to use numbered patterning behaviors to try to control the djinn and appear normal to those around her.
While in the theater, Mel and Saf are trapped by a rioting gang of Chinese who are looking for Malays to kill. Saf’s appearance immediately identifies her as Malay, but Mel, who is lighter skinned, is identified by a neighbor as Eurasian and is separated from Saf and told to leave. Out in the street, Mel tries to make her way back to her mother, but the rioting gangs and the ongoing vandalism in the neighborhood prevent it. Luckily, she is rescued by a Chinese woman who takes her home to stay temporarily with her family until the unrest subsides. As Mel familiarizes herself with her rescuers–in particular the youngest son, Vincent–and sets off to find her mom, she learns difficult lessons about politics, racism, and survivor’s guilt, and she surprises herself with strengths she’s never known she possessed.
The themes of ethnic rivalry and discrimination will resonate with aware young adult readers. The treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder will interest them as well. Offensive language is negligible (hell and damn), as is any sexual content beyond one vaguely threatened rape. Violence, of course, is frequently and graphically described. The book is well written and a fast read. Even though it is historical fiction, the narrative has a timeless quality about it that reminds me of Anne Frank’s Diary. That author’s note at the beginning of the book, however, needs to go at the end.
Categories: Asian Culture, Books We Recommend, Books with No Objectionable Content, Bullying, Crime, Death and Grieving, Diversity, Historical Fiction, Immigrants, Mental Health, Muslim Culture, Political Activism, Religion, Social Disorders, Violence