Last week I came across one of those irresistible quizzes that pop up on social media. This one promised to give you something to read based on the types of TV shows you choose to watch. Naturally, I took the quiz and then I retook and retook, because I can’t stand not knowing what other books might be out there for me. Anyway, one of the recommendations was A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena. The blurb sounded pretty good, and as it turns out, this YA/teen novel is really excellent. Bhathena, in her debut novel, writes about the experience of being a teenaged female and an outsider, falling in love, betrayal, and trying to deal with family issues, with the added twist of all of this happening in Saudi Arabia (Jeddah, to be precise), where religious police strictly enforce Sharia law regarding male/female relations. The main character, Zarin Wadia, is a 16 year old student at Qala Academy in Jeddah. From page one, we know that she and a young man named Porus are dead; they have been in a car accident and their spirits are looking down upon their bodies and their mourning relatives. From here, Bhathena takes us back in time to unravel the events leading up to this tragedy.
Zarin is the “girl like that” in her community. She has a reputation for being a bad girl and a loner; she smokes, skips class and hangs out with boys in cars. Her Masi and Masa (aunt and uncle) who are raising her do not know about her activities, but their treatment of her contributes to her behavior. Zarin’s parents died when she was very small, and the circumstances of their romance and deaths are a matter of much irritation and fury to Masi, who takes it out on Zarin. Zarin and her family are from India but, like many, moved to Saudi Arabia for work opportunities. Although they are not Muslim (they are Zoroastrian), they still must follow the laws regarding dress and behavior for females. Qala Academy keeps female students segregated from male, but this does not prevent all interaction. Thanks to phones and social media, some fraternization does occur, but few girls are so bold as to get in a car with a boy. The risk of being caught and the shame brought on one’s family and oneself is too great a threat. Zarin is willing to take the risk just to get away from her aunt and uncle and so that she can smoke. Her behavior is noted and gossiped about among the other female students, especially Zarin’s nemesis Mishal. Mishal and Zarin have known each other since elementary school and they have never gotten along. Mishal is what you might call the “queen bee” in their class. She is smart and seems to have all the gossip as well as definite opinions about other students and their behavior. She is disgusted by Zarin and doesn’t hesitate to show it. Mishal has an anonymous Tumblr account where she goes by the name “Blue Niqab” and exposes the secrets of other students; it is wildly popular and gives Mishal much gratification until she finds out that her own brother Abdullah has been seen in his car with Zarin. Mishal spies on her brother and his friends to get information, some of which she will use to deal with the Zarin/Abdullah situation. But at what cost?
Bhathena tells this story via multiple narrators, which I enjoyed. We get the points of view of Zarin, Mishal, and Abdullah; a student named Farhan, who is very handsome and popular, and whose father has a lot of power and influence in the community; and Porus, a young man who knew Zarin in childhood back in Mumbai and who has moved to Jeddah for work. These are multi-dimensional characters whose religion, family situations, and upbringing influence their actions. Each character is dealing with parent issues; families are not “in tact.” In addition to Zarin’s orphan status, Porus’ beloved father is dead. Mishal and Abdullah’s parents are divorced. Farhan’s father cheats on his mother, who knows but says nothing. The plight of women, the effects of inequality on their mental and physical well being, is at the forefront of this novel and is shown through this varied narration. Characters mention on a few occasions that mental health issues are not treated seriously in Saudi Arabia, and that women are held responsible and blamed for matters involving sex and social relations while men are not. In one especially well done scene, Zarin and Mishal participate in a school debate over whether it’s permissible and correct for victims of domestic violence to respond with deadly violence or illegal action. Overall the reader gets a sense of why there would be mental health problems, especially among women, in such a culture.
While the reader knows that Zarin and Porus are dead, Bhathena does leave the reader with an uplifting ending, an ending that shows the possibility for love and happiness for particular individuals and improvement for the larger community. A Girl Like That would resonate with anyone who has endured the teen years or is currently dealing with the trauma of broken families and social ostracism. Bhathena writes with compassion for all of her characters and with firsthand knowledge of the society in which she places them. It’s an eye-opener of a novel and an excellent read.