A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a coming-of-age story following Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl, in the extremely turbulent times after 9/11. Tired of all the rude stares, degrading comments, even the physical violence, she’s met with, Shirin has 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 and his friends. Until she meets Ocean, who sees her for who she is behind the stereotypes and refuses to let her rejection keep him from getting to know her better. Slowly, slowly he manages to break down her walls. (Yes, the title of the book is a very clever and poetic way of naming the book after Shirin’s love interest.)
I loved the first books in The Shatter Me-series by Tahereh Mafi and her unique, beautiful writing style just blew me off. So when I found out that she had written a new book with a Muslim main character who is completely herself, I had such high expectations of another wonderful breathtaking reading experience. Unfortunately though, the writing style is not at all the same in this book. The language is much more plain and nowhere near the feverish, raw, amazing way in which The Shatter Me-series was written.
Story-wise, I also feel that this book could have been so much more. I have settled for a 3 star rating of this book, since it on the one hand was very emotional and heart-breaking, showing Shirin’s anger and frustration at all the injustice and prejudice she’s suffering, but on the other hand, I didn’t connect with Shirin and the story was written in a tell-not-show-way while leaving too much out to make you fully invested in the story. There was so much more I wanted to know; like how could her parents be both so controlling and yet so disturbingly uninterested in her struggles, how was Shirin’s connection to her faith, did she pray, what did she think about kissing and being with a non-Muslim boy from that perspective, and more about the friendship with her breakdance-crew. I understand why Shirin kept everyone at arm’s length, but as a reader it was frustrating not to learn more about her thoughts and considerations. It also made the romance less real, less emotional, than it could have been. Ocean was adorable, so sweet and kind, but you never got really close to him either. It was as if he was too perfect to be a real person somehow. I wish it could have been more of Shirin actually seeing Ocean playing basket and being with his friends, to allow us readers to see him through her eyes. The romance and the story felt rushed, and I couldn’t invest emotionally in it as much as I’d like to, especially considering that it was such a huge part of the book.
Still, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is an important, emotional book dealing with racism in post-9/11 America, showing the anger, pain and struggle that a Muslim teenager may have to deal with and how horrible, hateful, mean and prejudice people can be. And even though the romance part wasn’t one of my favorites, the sibling relationship between Shirin and her older brother Navid was. I think Navid is now one of my favorite book brothers of all time. He was so protective of her, but also so supportive in the decisions she made. I just wish that the book had been MORE. More of Shirin’s sense of identity, her religious and cultural beliefs. More of her friendship with the breakdancing crew. More of the relationship with her brother and parents. This book had the potential of being the THUG for a Muslim main character, but unfortunately it did not live up to that. Still, I’m really happy that this book exists for Muslim teens to identify with and for opening the eyes of readers to all the horrible islamophobia in the world.
Find out more about the book and the author here: Tahereh Mafi