Genre: YA Contemporary | Diverse Rep: Muslim MC (#OV)
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a beautifully-written, heartbreaking story of a closed-off Muslim teen girl, Shirin, who starts a new high school the year after 9/11 and unexpectedly falls for her lab partner, a white boy named Ocean. While the core of the plot revolves around their romance, the book does so much more than follow two teens falling in love. This book introduced me to the world of break dancing and drew me back in time to the days when AIM was the way you talked to people after school. Ultimately, this book is about what it means to decide to open up to people around you, no matter the cost, and how one person can change the course of another’s life, permanently.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is the ultimate quiet YA.
Because it’s told in first person, we’re deep inside Shirin’s perspective, feeling what she’s feeling. Yet, since it’s told in past tense, we get the sense that Shirin is telling this story at a distance of some unknown amount of time. As I read, I imagined an older Shirin, maybe in her twenties, looking back on the first time she fell in love. The subtly of this writing style really added to the depth of the story.
The stakes here are ultimately related to Shirin’s internal struggle: to open herself, or to stay closed off.
As a white person who grew up in the safety of Christianity, I have no idea what it’s like to live as an openly Muslim person, especially in the turbulent years right after 9/11. Through reading this story, though, I can understand more of Shirin’s perspective. She and her family have moved more times than she can count, which means there’s little point in becoming attached to other people. On top of that, she’s accustomed to nearly daily micro-aggressions from people who misunderstand who she is and what she represents.
Sometimes I really wanted to smack some sense into Shirin, especially the more she gets to know Ocean. His character makes such a beautiful contrast with hers: while she pulls away from feelings, from connection with other people, he opens himself up, even when it means getting hurt. Yet it’s clear that Ocean feels safe to do this because he can’t imagine how his world would react to him being with a Muslim girl. As the story progresses, as some of Shirin’s worst fears come true due to her relationship with Ocean, I began to understand even more why she tries to avoid getting caught up in relationships with other people.
That being said, Shirin really grows as a character, and I loved watching that progression.
It’s not that Ocean changes her, but being with Ocean changes her. Because of her relationship with him, she learns that yes, sometimes white people are ignorant. But sometimes, they really want to learn, they just don’t know how. Sometimes people aren’t judging you as harshly as you think they are. Sometimes, she realizes, you’re judging people even more harshly than you believe they’re judging you. This was absolutely a beautiful, yet subtle transition to read.
There truly is so much to appreciate about this story, and I think each reader may take away something slightly different.
As someone who was in middle school when 9/11 happened, I really appreciated that this book takes place in 2002. Mafi does a great job of really setting the scene of the early 2000s, from the musical references (and the iPods!) to the reliance on limited texting and AOL Instant Messenger as a form of communication between teens. I vividly remember how excited I was when my parents finally got dial-up and I could chat with my friends after school. I remember when each text message cost money, so I had to limit my communications in that way. I remember how my iPod became my best friend at a certain point—so I could completely connect with Shirin on this level.
By far the most powerful element of this book is the #OwnVoices Muslim rep.
Shirin is constantly mis-read as a terrorist, simply because she chooses to wear hijab. At multiple points, different characters suggest that maybe it would be easier for her if she just stopped wearing her scarf, which makes her a target for harassment, micro-aggressions, slurs, and more. Yet each time, Shirin continues to be herself. In her character, I was able to see how wearing hijab is itself an act of bravery, particularly in a place like America, with so much Islamophobia.
Overall, do I recommend?
Through Shirin’s character, I realized that the act of being yourself in a world that despises you is in and of itself revolutionary. Although it was incredibly heartbreaking to see Shirin mistreated constantly throughout this book, I came away with a deep emotional connection to her story. This is a book I cannot recommend highly enough to all types of readers, regardless of background, religion, race, or creed. But don’t just take my word for it: read this #OwnVoices review by the lovely Chaima and see for yourself.