The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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This brand new middle school read is like a quick picture of a young girl’s life.  You get to know her as she is, you briefly meet those around her, you see a week or so of her life and then the book ends and you aren’t the same.  You wonder about her, you worry about her, and you find yourself wanting to reach out to those that maybe remind you of her.  Truly a wonderful book of 277 hard-to-put-down-pages that give insight into Malaysia in 1969, OCD, and the beauty of people willing to show their humanity in dire circumstances. My only concern is that I don’t know that there is anything relevant to the typical target audience western reader that would compel them to pick up the book and see it through.  All the reviews online that praise it seem to be from people older than the YA demographic.  Yes, I really enjoyed the book, but I know who the Beatles are, who Paul Newman is, I am a Muslim, I recently went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and saw the diversity of religions and culture, I know people struggling with mental illness to the point of disability and the exhaustion that ensues; yet I don’t know if I could convince my 12 year old daughter to read it.  If I forced her, I don’t know that she would find the book as beautiful and powerful as I do.  I think a lot of it, she simply wouldn’t get, and even less of it she would relate to.  I probably will force her to read it at some point, and I’ll happily revise this review and swallow my assumption about what the youth these days can handle and identify with, but until then, please let me know if you are in the YA demographic and what you thought of the book. Thanks.

SYNOPSIS:

Melati is a 16 year old Malay girl in 1969, living with her mother, a nurse.  Her father, a police officer, has recently died, and with his loss, she has become crippled by OCD and the fear that her mother too, will die.  Counting numbers move from consoling her and keeping the horrific thoughts at bay, to becoming almost like an incantation that must be performed nearly constantly to keep her mother safe.  As race riots between the Chinese and ethnic Malays engulf the city one fateful afternoon when Melati and her best friend Safiyah are at the movie theater after class, watching the latest Paul Newman movie, the reader is shown how even in calm situations, keeping the OCD from consuming her is a full time job.  With no knowledge of treating and even diagnosing mental health, Melati tries to hide her visions and ticks from those around her as it has alienated extended family, and worries her mother.  The conclusion instead is that she is being haunted by a djinn and thus her mother takes her to different imams and healers, to no avail, and knowing that the common treatment at the time is to have those suffering carted off to an asylum and experimented on, something Melati’s mom, Salmah vows never to let happen, Melati suffers alone.

Once the movie ends, gangs enter the theater and Saf and Melati are separated.  Melati is saved by a stranger, a Chinese lady named Auntie Bee, and Saf is left at the hands of a Chinese gang.  Violence erupts, lasting for days, and curfews prevent Melati from searching for her mother.  While Auntie Bee and her family care for her and take in other neighbors, it is made clear that tensions between the two ethnic groups are high and have been for some time, but that good people exist on both sides too.  People who see people as people not just their culture. 

It is a YA book, so there is a little suspension of reality to reunite a number of the characters and give them the happiest ending such a gritty book can muster, but the author does warn the reader before the story begins that this book has violence and anxiety triggers, and death, she actually urges those that will be inversely affect by such things, to not read her book.  And it makes sense, it is graphic at times, and characters also die, and the tone is powerful, and the OCD is intense.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book embraces all its themes wholeheartedly, there is no happy ending, or magic cure for Melati’s illness, within one family there is racial tension and beautiful examples of selflessness, that two people can save each other but not like each other, and that families can be really disappointing.  At times the presence of the djinn is so annoying that the reader feels how crippling it must be to Melati, as it cripples the story as well, the balance is perfect though, it doesn’t drag the book to the point of wanting to put it down, if anything it makes you cheer harder when her little victories take place.  

I like that there isn’t a huge sappy reunion, because the danger is still going on and the characters presence of mind to the tasks still at hand is actually a subtle, yet powerful nod to the hope that Melati and her mom will be ok.  Can you tell I’m trying not to spoil too much, just suffice it to say, the women in this book are strong and determined and inspiring.

I like that Islam is present and that Melati has to grapple at times with her faith to find where it lies and how she accepts some of the events that have taken place, and the djinn fighting to consumer her. In many teens it is a right of passage, but for her it is amplified by the horrors she has lived through and seen and her own mental state.  Clearly the author is Malay and Muslim as she sprinkles words and phrases and traditions seamlessly into  the narrative that makes it flow with authenticity and vibrance.

I wish at times we knew more about the history of what lead up to the violence, or maybe even more about some of the characters, but alas I think this is Melati’s story and those that have turned their back on her and her mom really don’t deserve the ink needed to share their roles.  Some details about the resolution of the riots or how the country came back together might be nice, but a quick Google search can quell any curiosities.  I appreciate that the writing is smooth and intentional and well crafted and not a distraction to the internal turmoil and story being conveyed.

FLAGS:

Violence, racial tension, graphic death, anxiety triggers.  Melati and Vincent hold hands, it is a bit fuzzy if it is out of reassurance or something more.  There isn’t explicit sexual violence, but Melati does see a soldier pressing his body against a school girl who is of a similar age to her.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to do this as a book club, but I don’t know that the students will read it voluntarily.  I may have to bribe them and get permission from the school counselor.  I think they would benefit immensely from the insight in to mental illness and feel comfortable talking about their understanding of it, being it is presented in a fictional format.  I think the violence, because it is rooted in history can be understood and be discussed.  

Interview with the author: http://richincolor.com/2019/02/interview-with-hanna-alkaf-the-weight-of-our-sky/

Author’s website: https://hannaalkaf.com/the-weight-of-our-sky-2/

 

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