- published by: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers
- genres: contemporary, YA
- content warnings:sexual harassment and assault, use of date rape drugs, emotional abuse, physical violence and assault, bullying, car accidents
Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school. You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned.
❝ My story is different from Zarin and Mishal’s. Yet it does not make their stories any less true, nor does it diminish the reality of living in a world that still defines girls in various ways without letting them define themselves ❞
The author’s note of this book struck me so much because I thought it so perfectly and so succinctly captured the heart of this book – women existing as whole, oftentimes messy people who are fighting for respect and the right to exist outside of what society has dictated for them. Set in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, A Girl Like That explores cultural, religious and national rhetoric and ideas about womanhood. This novel focusses particularly on rape culture and ideas about female sexuality, and how the ongoing social perpetuation of these ideas limits and harms women.
The story is witnessed by the ghost of Zarin Wadia, killed in a car crash with her best friend Porus. We follow the events leading up to the crash, with Zarin serving as a spectral presence. The story is about her – but you can never quite forget she’s dead. This book feels heavy with hauntings, not only the site of Zarin and Porus’ death but also the various girls throughout the story. They’re haunted by the social idealisation of their womanhood, by the weight of expectation on their shoulders, and by their histories which often erupt, violently and messily, into the present.
❝ It is strange, I thought, how we always recognize our best memories in hindsight ❞
One thing I loved about this book was its insistence on portraying it’s central female characters as imperfect and oftentimes messy, mean, or even cruel. I liked how, corresponding to this, the narrative also insisted on showing that these girls deserve to be respected and own their personhood regardless of their personal failings.
These women all existed within the social framework in different ways, some rebelling against it like Zarin, others falling into and thus oftentimes perpetuating, like Mishal. But the narrative doesn’t wholly condemn them because it recognises sixteen-year-old girls are imperfect people, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to overthrow a system which is so thoroughly and aggressively designed to limit them. The hopelessness and the dread that permeates this book felt heavy, and yet necessary for the story that Bhathena was trying to tell.
I also enjoyed reading this for the depiction of Saudi Arabia. I believe this may be the only book I’ve ever read set in The Kingdom, and I found the setting highly interesting because of it. Bhathena grew up in Jeddah, the setting of this book and I think it shows in the crafting of some settings, that blend of love, hate and nostalgia for a hometown that I can recognise. The main character is also Zoroastrian, a religion I had never even heard of. Learning new things through fiction is one of my most favourite things so I was immensely pleased that I had so many learning experiences through this book.
❝ When people say you’re wrong so many times over so many years, when they call you a bad person, you begin to believe them. You begin to hide your face again – to anyone – you will be judged. Sometimes, it gets so bad that you begin to wonder if life is worth living ❞
In terms of critiques, I do think this book had some pacing and story set up issues. The beginning is slow and confusing, with too many names and characters thrown at you at once.
I also thought some storylines were done a lot better than others. The perspective of two of the make characters added little of interest to the narrative, and I thought it would have been more impactful to stick with Zarin and Mishal. I also think some discussions were a little underdone, though this is a relatively short book so I also think given the page count it’s understandable.
Overall, I thought this was a really powerful and unique YA contemporary. Few books come to mind to compare this to, because I feel it was writing in a setting and a culture that is so underrepresented in mainstream YA. Bhathena’s attempt to tackle gender politics and the societal construction of womanhood, and the expectations of this construction, was carefully and cleverly done, and I applaud her for writing so many complex, interesting and imperfect female characters while relentlessly and imploringly showing the reader their humanity, their value, and their right to define themselves.
until next time