Title: A Very Large Expanse of Sea
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Published: October 16th, 2018 by HarperTeen
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.
The Review (this review may contain spoilers):
I knew going into this book that it would be a difficult one to review, which is why I’ve put off writing one until now even though I finished reading it a while back. My TL:DR review is: A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a great eye-opener to the other side of the story, a reminder that a person from an (often) negatively painted community could be just like any other person despite their beliefs and fashion choices, and a heart-breaking peek at the impact that hate and ostracism could have on a person. But, I also have to say that this is not my favorite Tahereh Mafi book. I feel like there could’ve been a more in-depth take on the faith and culture rather than the romance, which I think takes up most of the story.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea tells the story of Shirin as she tries to navigate through life as a Muslim girl, a hijabi, to be precise, in a post 9/11 America. She’s lonely, angry, and confused about why people would treat her so horribly despite having done nothing to provoke them. So Shirin builds a wall around herself and refuses to let people in, thinking no one could possibly understand what she’s feeling. Her anger and loneliness are so palpable it jumps off the pages, and I don’t think you need to be a Muslim to relate to her. A lot of the things she says really resonate with me and it’s so wonderful to see the same thoughts I’ve had put into words.
“Because I always say that. I always say that I don’t care what other people think. I say it doesn’t bother me, that I don’t give a shit about the opinions of assholes but it’s not true. It’s not true, because it hurts every time, and that means I still care. It means I’m still not strong enough because every time someone says something rude, it hurts. It never stops hurting. It only gets easier to recover”
― Tahereh Mafi, A Very Large Expanse of Sea
Having barely any knowledge about Persian culture, I loved reading about it through Shirin’s perspective. No matter what else is going on in her life, her identity as a Persian remain constant, her relationship with her family remain strong, and I can’t help but want to find recipes of the food she described. I think that A Very Large Expanse of Sea could be so much more than a contemporary novel, which is why the heavy focus on the romance element in the book made me a little disappointed. I mean, I knew what I was getting into after reading the summary, but I wish there was more balance between the romance and the other aspects of the story.
But I think this would be a rare case where a love triangle could actually benefit the story. The addition of Yusef’s character could have added so much more depth and conflict to Shirin’s life, like having to choose between a love interest that’s ‘easy’, having the same religious background as herself, or sticking with her own choices that’s more difficult. While this conflict was present in the story, it was barely touched and fizzled out into nothing.
Even though I don’t know how much of this book is based on Tahereh Mafi’s life and personal experience, knowing that at least some of it is, gives a greater impact, especially on how Shirin goes through life with the constant threat of verbal and physical assault from people who don’t understand and don’t want to understand her. Which is why I wish that more of the story be about how she lives her life and finding acceptance beyond a romantic relationship. And I also wanted there to be more about her religion other the hijab, and the occasional mention of praying and fasting.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is definitely a book worth reading. I think it offers a good introduction to Muslims and Islam that goes beyond what is shown in mainstream media. A Very Large Expanse of Sea, while completely different from Shatter Me, is still beautifully written in a way that perfectly conveys Shirin’s voice and personality. I do think that the romance takes up too much of the story, but that’s just my opinion and I think it’s probably in line with the contemporary genre. In the end, I think this book is a really good read, full of emotions and relatable characters and I think everyone should read it at least once.
“If the decision you’ve made has brought you closer to humanity, then you’ve done the right thing.”
Tahereh Mafi, A Very Large Expanse of Sea