A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Publisher: Electric Monkey
Publication date: 18 October 2018
Genre: Young adult contemporary
Page count: 296 pages
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
This review is spoiler-free.
I rarely read contemporary YA — in fact, I have only read five contemporary YA books this year — but somtimes one really catches my eye. This was the case with A Very Large Expanse of Sea, Tahereh Mafi’s semi-autobiographical novel of life as an American Muslim teen one year after 9/11. Having read and loved books like The Hate U Give and I Am Thunder, I know that my interest in contemporary YA tends to lean toward books that deal with social issues and let you walk in another person’s shoes.
It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
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.
In a post-The Hate U Give world, books that deal with prejudice and social justice are rightfully coming to the forefront of YA fiction. A Very Large Expanse of Sea fits in perfectly as a powerful YA novel that shows the ugliness of prejudice and Islamophobia from multiple perspectives. The semi-autobiographical elements of the book make it all the more powerful as Mafi combines her own experiences with what Shirin faces, particularly as a woman who chooses to wear a hijab, in the pages. In fact, I found Shirin’s interests and struggles far more compelling than the romance in this book. However, the romance has a purpose — it shows how privileged people like myself and perhaps yourself, dear reader, don’t see the struggles of others clearly. In this way, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is one of the strongest examples of social consciousness in YA that I’ve read.
Shirin is a fascinating and wonderful character — reading about her was an absolute joy. She grows, learns, and evolves so much over the course of the novel, and I really loved her story. I wont lie, I assumed the breakdancing element would be a bit awkward and tacked on, but you can tell that this is drawn on Mafi’s own love of the music and dance. The downside to having such a strong main character is that upon reflection, everyone else is a little forgettable.
Although it is set in 2002, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a powerful novel that has themes that remain sadly relevant to this day. If you liked The Hate U Give or I Am Thunder, I’d highly recommend picking up this book.
Want to give A Very Large Expanse of Sea a try? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):