Hello everyone, and welcome back!
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write a full review of this book, not because I disliked it, but because in some ways, it hit home a bit too much. A lot of the time, sexual assault is written into books as a weird trope to ramp up the stakes for young women and I’m just grossed out. However, when it’s written realistically in terms of the trauma it causes and the way it affects a life, it can remind me of experiences in my own history and experiences of others in difficult ways.
Which is to say that this book might be a little triggering at some points, but I also think it deals with the issue well and is a worthwhile read, although for other reasons it wasn’t my favourite ever. Anyway, let’s get to it!
Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
Saints and Misfits is more or less a slice-of-life about Janna, a Muslim hijabi girl who loves photography and Flannery O’Connor. Her parents are divorced, her brother has just moved home from school, and she’s just had an awful encounter with a monster who’s part of her friend groups and religious community. She’s also in the midst of her first major crush on a non-Muslim boy with a very nice forehead. (And she has two jobs and friends and joins a quiz team and, and.)
I picked this one up mostly because I thought it would be interesting to read a slice-of-life about a hip teen Muslim girl, and in that sense, this book brings a lot to the table. It’s hard to express this perfectly, but I’ll take a stab: I don’t think diverse books should always have to try to be accessible to other points of view and seek to educate, but I do think that a lot of books that provide rare representation (especially books that pave the way for more) strive for accessibility and the ability to educate for a good reason—to reach out to a broad readership and encourage them to see things from a new point of view.
In this case, Saints and Misfits can provide some education to non-Muslims (like me!) about life as a modern Muslim girl, while also providing a really easy way in, because Janna’s daily life has a lot of familiar problems. From that perspective (or if you’re looking for some sorely lacking Muslim rep in your YA), this book is great to add to a TBR, and I’d say it’s an enjoyable read, if not entirely easy for the reasons I mentioned at the beginning of this post.
But. If you’ve been following me for a while, you might already be able to tell what I’m about to say about this book: there’s a bit too much going on in it. (I felt similarly about Tash Hearts Tolstoy, which also has some cool rare representation, in that case asexuality, but it also tries to do a lot.) You might also know what else I’m going to add: this book is fairly short (325 pages in my edition), so it feels a little clipped in execution because it’s short with so much happening. Some storylines don’t really seem to get resolved.
This could be to some extent an It’s not you, it’s me thing, because honestly, feeling a bit overwhelmed by everything going on is so classic teen life that it seems like content imitating reality. We’ll say for sure this: I’m not against slice-of-life, but this much going on at once isn’t for me, because I don’t feel like I get to know each character very well and get a sense of emotional connection and anticipation for events and so on.
Janna was likeable in that sense that any not abrasive protagonist who is Dealing With Some Real Stuff is likeable, but I would’ve loved her more if I’d gotten to see more of her sense of humour, her interests, her goals, her friendships, and so on. The other characters were likeable mostly when they took an action to be kind to or help Janna, but I would’ve loved to like them more on their own merits. (Sausun stood out as amazing anyway, but she kind of disappeared in the middle.)
I do think a lot of people would not be bothered by this pile-up of Stuff Happening (it certainly keeps the book moving quickly), so I want to get to some positive things about this book.
Janna’s struggles are realistic and I think that there are a lot of awesome things in here: Janna really asserts her independence and personal agency in all of her decisions, religious or otherwise, and I loved that she took so much ownership of her own happiness; sexual assault is dealt with seriously, and although it has consequences, Janna finds a way to deal with it and live her life; there are definitely young women being there for other young women; and Janna’s uncle, a religious leader in her community, has a good sense of humour and is a generally cool guy. (It’s always nice to see religious leaders who aren’t just forbidding, stern jerks.)
But yeah. A bit too much going on in too short a space for me, even if I thought this handled the issue of sexual assault pretty well. This book definitely taught me a bit and there’s a lot of value to the time I spent reading it, but just…as a book that I was trying to engage with, it was good but too busy and short to give me feels.
What are some of your favourite contemporary reads? (I’d especially love to find some light on romance.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!