I’m still struggling with my reactions to this story. Representation abso-fucking-lutely matters, so it’s really great to have an American hijabi Muslim teenager and her diverse cast of family and friends (and foes) take center stage here. But I kept wondering how much my desire to have these stories told reconciled with how impatient I’d feel if Jannah was Jana, the adherent of a conservative Christian sect. I loved the normalization of Islam in these pages but I didn’t feel like it was a really good book, and confessing this has me feeling like I’m letting down the side, being Muslim myself. It was just very YA, in the derogatory use of the term, where things are concluded in tidy packages instead of being examined as thoroughly as one would expect from good fiction of any genre.
The worst part is that I feel that Saints And Misfits does try to examine these issues but the author doesn’t really know how to fit them all into the Happily Ever After conclusion that both she and Jannah so obviously prefer. It’s not a spoiler to say that Jannah is assaulted by a guy from the mosque whom everyone else thinks is a saint, as that’s pretty much the central narrative of the book. The rest of this review has minor spoilers for the rest of the book, so you can stop here if you’re uninterested in knowing what happens next before you get your hands on the novel yourself.
Anyway, I completely understand Jannah’s shame spiral, and her reluctance to tell anyone because she doesn’t want any more bad perceptions of her faith from outsiders. But how the fuck is that stopping her from telling people of her faith what happened? How utterly facile is it of her to internalize the shame of what he did to her when the vast majority of the Muslims around her are clearly supportive of her as an individual, and disinclined to sacrifice her body to the perception of male righteousness? Which, by the way, is not something very many communities, of whatever religion or ethnicity, are inclined to do even in this day and age. It’s great that S. K. Ali celebrates an enlightened Muslim community, but it only makes Jannah’s decisions that much harder to understand. The dissonance between her circumstances and her actions really bothered me, and made me dislike her as a character. I pretty much liked everyone else better (except for her horror show of a gym teacher, who was more intent on shaming Jannah than any Muslim in the book, IMO. And Farooq, obviously.) I was very much #TeamSausun, even if I thought the discussion of wearing a niqab incomplete historically, and didn’t understand why the Niqabi Ninjas were trying to bring attention to themselves when that’s pretty much the exact opposite of why they wear them.
Anyway, it was a worthy idea of a book but the execution didn’t sit well with me. Characters were awesome, and there were a whole bunch of great vignettes but the central plot was meh at best. And, frankly, I’m not 100% sure how much I care about conservative family dynamics, regardless of which religion they’re based in, even ones as unfairly maligned as Islam is in the Western political climate.