Monday, 15 June 2015

Review: She Wore Red Trainers by Na'ima B. Robert

4.5 stars

She Wore Red Trainers: A Muslim Love Story is the story of Amirah and Ali, two eighteen-year olds trying to navigate their family, faith and future as they come of age in the gritty suburbs of South London, and I really enjoyed it. 

As a YA romance between two observant Muslim teens, there was relatively little interaction between Ali and Amirah, which I had seen other readers complaining about on Goodreads. For me, this was precisely what made it interesting and unique: they embodied a different set of norms, values and beliefs when it comes to interactions between genders. And it's not as though their lack of direct contact came at the expense of a relationship all together.  Just like most prospective couples in conservative cultures, they communicated through their friends and family members, and in small but meaningful gestures.

Amirah and Ali and their family members were wonderfully written, and the dynamics of their respective families formed a large part of the story. The imperfections of Ali's father and Amirah's mother as people and parents were expertly reflected in their children's wants, fears and motivations. For Amirah, her mother's four Islamic marriages and wholehearted reliance her husbands has made her gun-shy about relationships, and she vows never to marry. With overwhelming family responsibilities, she takes solace in art, even though she is resolved to do a more 'sensible' course at university. Meanwhile, Ali's father has lost his business and the family's house in Hertfordshire in the wake of his wife's death, and Ali and his brothers are struggling to come to terms with their new, much reduced, circumstances.

The dialogue throughout really reinforced the dual world the characters inhabit. The Muslim 'brothers' Ali hangs out with - including Amirah's brother Zayd - speak as though they just stepped out of an episode of Skins, but with Arabic phrases peppered throughout.  Amirah and her friends are the same, speaking like any other gaggle of British girls, except with the addition of a 'Mottie' (Muslim Hottie) scale that they use to rate boys.  Other reviewers disliked the author's use of jargon - both British and Islamic - but once I got used to it, I quite enjoyed it. To me, it reinforced the point that these characters were British teenagers with similar problems to any other British teenagers, only with the added dimension of their Islamic faith. In some instances, they had no problems reconciling the two, but in others, they struggled to establish what was halal and haraam in a world so different to that of the Quran and Hadith.  There was a glossary of Islamic/Arabic terms provided at the back, which I didn't find until I'd finished, but most things were decipherable by context anyway, and I realised I had learnt a lot a few days later, when I read an witty article about Islamic pick-up lines and understood some of the nuances.

In a lot of ways, She Wore Red Trainers contained the best of both YA and adult romance. Ali and Amirah's interactions were cute yet profound, leaving the reader wanting more, just as the characters themselves did.  One of the reasons I stopped reading YA is that I often had trouble believing that the relationships would last for long after the final page. However, in this novel, Ali and Amirah are entering into a relationship having already made a lifetime commitment, and this gave me the Happily Ever After that I'd normally find in adult romances. 

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