Review—A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

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A Girl Like That, by Tanaz Bhathena, is not an easy story to read. The main character, Zarin Wadia, is a “girl like that,” an outcast with a reputation, to nearly everyone in the story except for her friend Porus. And Zarin and Porus are dead on the first page.

Yep, it’s that kind of book.

Zarin lives with her aunt and uncle because her mother and father (former dancer and gangster) are dead. Her home life is extremely difficult thanks to her aunt and in spite of her uncle. At school, she is ostracized by the girls and objectified by the boys, who are a disturbing example of the meaning of rape culture. Her friend Porus is everyone’s favorite character—kind, understanding, and fiercely loyal. The book opens at the end—she and Porus are dead, victims of a car crash and floating above their bodies. The plot of the book tells the story of how they got there, but it is also an examination of a lot of difficult issues. This was a really hard book to read. It deals with sexual assault, child neglect, the stigmatization of mental illness, polygamy, violence, bullying, and child abuse–physical, mental, emotional, verbal, and sexual. And that’s even before you get into the depressing reality of being a woman and/or an expat of South Asian descent in Saudi Arabia.

I was originally drawn to this book because of the girl on the cover who is wearing a hijab. It turns out she is actually Parsi, not Muslim, and covers her hair because she lives in Saudi Arabia. But there are Muslim characters, and I love that the cast of characters includes all kinds of people—there are Parsis, Muslims, Indians, Arabs, and mixed characters. I can’t really speak to representation, but this is an #ownvoices story for Bhathena, who was born in Mumbai and spent time in Saudi Arabia as a child.

I really enjoyed this book am glad I read this book. It’s a difficult read in terms of themes, but it talks about important issues, and is really well done. It has multiple points of view and a non-linear narrative, both things that I absolutely love and am always glad to see in YA. I’m also really glad to see a YA book set in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t see that coming, but I’m not sure why–it’s long overdue.

A few things that bothered me:

  • I found the representation of high school boys unbearably depressing. I get that rape culture is a thing, but the representation of high school boys in this story was so completely monolithic, and I thought it could have been more nuanced.
  • I disliked Porus as a romantic interest and his continued pursual of Zarin. It ruined a lot of the warm-fuzzies I was feeling for him as a character. But this is YA–so I get that this is also a thing.
  • The ending (and especially the last page) was too vague for me. I almost would have preferred no epilogue at all.

This is a book that I see myself being haunted by in the foreseeable future, not necessarily because of the story, but more because of the setting and themes that Bhathena explores. I recommend this book for YA readers looking for a hard-hitting story or interested in the lives of South Asian expats (and especially high school students) in Saudi Arabia.  

A Girl Like That comes out this Tuesday (2/27/2018) and you can get a copy here.

Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, who provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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