A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena
I read it as a: hardback
Length: 384 pp
Publisher: Farrar Strauss
Sixteen year old Zarin Wadia is a girl caught between family, social, and peer pressures. Orphaned at four, being raised by her hateful aunt and spineless uncle, Zarin has never really remembered a time when she felt loved. Her only friend is a boy she sees from her balcony who waves to her as he heads out to school each morning. When her aunt and uncle move her from her hometown of Mumbai to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Zarin has even more rules to follow, for interactions between men and women in Saudi are highly regulated and women are closely guarded. Zarin begins rebelling against the societal boundaries, learning to avoid the religious police as well as her aunt, just for an hour or two of unsupervised freedom. When she encounters Porus, a young man working at the neighborhood deli, they each recognize each other as the balcony friends they had been in Mumbai ten years earlier. Porus, against his mother’s wishes, stands by Zarin through bullying, slandering, assault, and abuse, determined to be everything for her that she never had before. When the two of them die in a horrific car accident (not a spoiler, it happens on the first page), the pieces of their stories come together in astonishing ways, revealing slowly just how Zarin came to be known as “a girl like that,” and how very, terribly wrong rumors and reputations can be.
This book was devastating. Utterly, completely, beautifully devastating. The pain the Zarin endured for so much of her life was tangible and leapt from the page. The bullying the girls at school put her through is something kids today across the world might be familiar with, which is disgusting as it is. Added to that was the way misogyny and violence towards women is codified into so much Arabic law. No, there was no hint of Islamophobia in this novel, as some reviews implied. It doesn’t make the author anti-Muslim to point out that Saudi Arabia actually has plenty of misogynistic laws reinforced by religious police. It was interesting to learn more about the region, and the various other cultural groups that live there besides Muslims. Zarin and her family are Zoroastrians, a small minority within the community. They don’t speak Arabic, or at least not well enough to defend themselves if they had been detained by the religious police. They spoke Hindi and Gujarati, mostly, and a little Arabic and Avestan. In my ignorance, I had never heard of Gujarati or Avestan in my entire life before reading this book. So I learned a few things, which is always good.
There were too many things that were sad and mad me cry in this. I loved the parts that made me happy, too. Porus is such a sweet character. We need more like him. The one thing I wanted more of was to know why her aunt was the way she was. Did she have schizophrenia? Early onset? Was she just an evil person? What happened to make her like that? What happened to Zarin’s uncle to make him lose his balls and not defend a child under his care from abuse? We also only got a little closure with the schoolmates. I get that the story was Zarin’s and not theirs, but they contributed to the misery of her life, so it would have been nice to know what happened to them beyond just a couple. I suppose we had some answers regarding the biggest offender, but I still wanted more about the other girls in the end.
I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this book, how gutwrenching it was, and how important I think it is that everyone read it. It’s a major discussion on a multitude of topics from bullying to rape culture and toxic masculinity to the long term impact of an abusive home environment. It pulls no punches, nor should it.