A Very Large Expanse of Sea
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
Because I was a six-year-old white child at the time it occurred, 9/11 changed very little of my life. The day of it, my second grade teacher turned out all the lights, gathered all us kids into a circle, and gave us the gentlest overview of what was happening. I blamed the UK for it like a dingus. In another classroom, my older brother’s class was watching it all unfold on TV from beneath their desks, where the teacher had demanded they take shelter.
That is not how things went if you were Muslim on and after 9/11 like Shirin, the main character of A Very Large Expanse of Sea. Throughout the novel, she faces serious Islamophobia and racism, harassment, and a pre-novel hate crime that could have killed her. All because she falls for a white boy who is her new high school’s beloved basketball star.
Some Muslim people don’t swear, but that is not Shirin. She’s a very sweary child who’s tired of what she and her family have been put through as well as the constant moves to new towns and new schools. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now, but Shirin comes across like a tiny kitten hissing at me with her the fur on her back raised up in warning. You understand she’s serious about not dealing with your crap, but she’s just so cute. You get torn up and you deserve it for being deceived by the cute.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea isn’t exactly a light novel given what the racists put Shirin through, but I swear to God it’s like “Mine” by Taylor Swift turned into a YA novel. Stay with me here: to borrow the lyrics, Shirin is “a flight risk/with a fear of falling.” She’s used to constant moves and being forced to leave her friends behind, so she’s pretty closed off from people. Why bother with friendships if they’ll never last past her next move? She has her social butterfly brother and the friends he makes. That’s enough.
Meanwhile, Ocean is determined to win her over and break down her walls. When she runs from him because of her own issues, he follows her. When she expects him to leave, he stays. It’s a sweet story of first love complicated by others’ hatred and Shirin growing up enough to face her own issues.
WHAT LEFT ME WANTING:
Unfortunately, it gets derailed at times when Ocean comes to the realization that racism exists and he is surrounded by racist people. He takes the spotlight away from Shirin in a clumsy way when he’s trying to fight back and win over the girl who broke up with him because of pressure from his mother, his coach, and the student body.
The novel’s timeline skips around a bit. It’s not unlike a stone skipping over water, touching the surface briefly to concentrate on one moment in time before skipping over another swath of time in a paragraph or two. That may be on purpose due to the way Shirin is so disconnected from those around her as a protective measure, but it’s hard to feel immersed in the story because of how the passage of time is written. It does make the novel a quick read, though.
With no clue how Mafi would write something that wasn’t post-apocalyptic like her Shatter Me series, I wasn’t sure how A Very Large Expanse of Sea would treat me. It’s good, y’all. It’s a solid, sharp-edged tale of first love and it’s got me that much more interested in Mafi’s latest recent-historical YA, An Emotion of Great Delight.
A book that should be on every teen's shelf.
In the year after 9/11 Shirin must navigate being the new kid--again-- in a small town high school. Her parent's move around a lot and the only friend she'd ever really been able to count on his her older brother. Now, things are even worse as kids distrust her for the simple fact she wears a scarf on her head.
Enter Ocean, a boy Shirin knows nothing about and yet can't get rid of. He sees behind the stereotypes to the girl beneath who just wants what everyone else does. To fit in, to avoid the bullies of high school, to have someone who cares.
What I loved:
Almost everything. This story brought me to tears on numerous occasion. It dives into a lot of tough subjects from the teacher who thinks he's an ally but really isn't to the fellow Islamic kids who tell Shirin she shouldn't wear the scarf. Every part of her life holds a bit of pain except one, breakdancing. The addition of something so relatively normal, something that crosses cultural lines is brilliant.
At the end of the day, this book has one main message. Whatever Shirin's heritage, whatever country her parents were born in, she is American and that's all she wants others to see.
What was just okay:
I can't say much because spoilers, but the ending left me unsatisfied.
I can't say enough good things about this book, but it's one that should be required reading in schools.
Well-written, emotional, and just as relevant for today's world as the post 9/11 world it depicts.