Title: That Thing We Call a Heart
Author: Sheba Karim
Pub Date: May 2017
My Rating: ★★★★☆
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Synopsis from Goodreads:
Shabnam Qureshi is a funny, imaginative Pakistani-American teen attending a tony private school in suburban New Jersey. When her feisty best friend, Farah, starts wearing the headscarf without even consulting her, it begins to unravel their friendship. After telling a huge lie about a tragedy that happened to her family during the Partition of India in 1947, Shabnam is ready for high school to end. She faces a summer of boredom and regret, but she has a plan: Get through the summer. Get to college. Don’t look back. Begin anew.
Everything changes when she meets Jamie, who scores her a job at his aunt’s pie shack, and meets her there every afternoon. Shabnam begins to see Jamie and herself like the rose and the nightingale of classic Urdu poetry, which, according to her father, is the ultimate language of desire. Jamie finds Shabnam fascinating—her curls, her culture, her awkwardness. Shabnam finds herself falling in love, but Farah finds Jamie worrying.
With Farah’s help, Shabnam uncovers the truth about Jamie, about herself, and what really happened during Partition. As she rebuilds her friendship with Farah and grows closer to her parents, Shabnam learns powerful lessons about the importance of love, in all of its forms.
Featuring complex, Muslim-American characters who defy conventional stereotypes and set against a backdrop of Radiohead’s music and the evocative metaphors of Urdu poetry, THAT THING WE CALL A HEART is a honest, moving story of a young woman’s explorations of first love, sexuality, desire, self-worth, her relationship with her parents, the value of friendship, and what it means to be true.
The Thing We Call a Heart is a story of Shabnam. She’s finishing her school and is on her way to a university. But before that, she has the last summer before college. By some fortunate coincident she bumps into a guy she previously saw at a mall, on farmer’s market. He’s there with his aunt and they offer her a job at a pie shack. That sorts Shabnam plans for the summer. She has a job and opportunity to spend some time with this guy, who’s so pretty and already said to her that’s she’s beautiful.
Shabnam lives in New Jersey with her parents, caring mother and weird father. She calls her father weird because he’s not very good at social interactions, and he just loves math and Urdu poetry. It’s amazing how well he understands poetry and how poorly he deals with actual people and their emotions. through the summer he teaches Shabnam about Urdu poetry, which was quite fun for me to read about. I knew nothing about it before, and now I know what ghazal is. I won’t become a fun of Urdu poetry anyway because it’s just not my jam. But it’s nice to know at least something about it. Shabnam mother has some similarities to my own mother, she doesn’t like to talk about anything painful and she’s overbearing sometimes. I totally got Shabnam and how angry she was in a moment when she just wanted to be alone, but her mother didn’t want to leave her alone because she was worried. I get how some people will read it and react: ‘how amazing and caring this mother is, and how ungrateful Shabnam is’… For me parent and child will never be friends, they are parent and child, and I don’t react well to any representation of some kind of friendship between those two. I also didn’t like Shabnam attempts to make her mother feel better, rationalizing how good her mother is to her, how much she suffered, and because of that, she owes her to be a good daughter. I didn’t like that.
Shabnam was working at a pie shack thought the summer. She got this job thanks to Jamie, a guy she first bumped into in Victoria’s Secret and then again at farmer’s market. Together with his aunt there were running a pie shack, and they just happen to look for a new person to sell those pies. Jamie thought that Shabnam would be just perfect. He is a very laid back, easy-going guy. He tells Shabnam that’s she’s pretty, and it means a lot to the teenage girl who never had a boyfriend and feels insecure. Someone else admiring her, being interested in her is amazing, and she loves it. Jamie listened to her carefully, he’s interested in her life, and she loves to bask in his attention. She’s teen, and those are first romantic experiences for her, so this is all understandable. It’s still quite sad that she’s insecure, and this guy saying that she’s beautiful means so much to her. I’d like to see her confident and not seeking validation from others, but such state is not easy to achieve.
I had mixed feelings about Jamie, until the end of the book when my feelings toward him fixed. He says that he doesn’t make plans because if people are meant to hang out they will eventually hang out, fate will bring them together. He says a lot about travelling, and not researching place he’s going to, not having a guide, a map, not using Google, ‘getting lost in the place’, which such an annoying thing to say. He asked a lot of questions about Shabnam’s heritage, about her family history, he was asking about her friend’s heritage and history. He was very insensitive about asking strangers personal questions about their past. I almost felt like he wasn’t really interested in Shabnam as a person, but he was fascinated with the ‘foreign’, and the ‘exotic’ part of Shabnam, that she’s Muslim, American-Pakistani, that her family member suffered in Partition of India. She was different from a white girl living in States because of her heritage, and I had a feeling like it was the thing that interested him the most. Also, Jamie asked Shabnam about the meaning of her name, and when she said it’s ‘Morning Dew’ he started to call her that. It was really weird, it’s not a question he would ask a person called ‘Jessica’. Shabnam didn’t seem to mind, and it wasn’t ever challenged. I might be reading too much into that though. He was an asshole anyway.
Moving on to the best part of the story – Shabnam’s best friend Farah. Wow, she’s such an interesting character, she doesn’t take a shit from anyone, she’s a badass feminist, she’s hella sarcastic, she’s bold in how she dresses. She’s unapologetic, and she decided to start wearing hijab. It was interesting to read about Muslim teen working her way into being true to herself, and what wearing hijab means to her while being a punk, feminist and not conforming to any rules, and on top of that being a Muslim in America. We are learning about it from the point of view of Shabnam, so it’s not the full view on the range of emotions and experiences of Farah, but we are getting a glimpse of that. Shabnam struggles with her friend starting to wear hijab, well she doesn’t have a problem with Farah wearing hijab, but with everything that changes when Farah starts to wear the hijab. This causes a break in two girls friendship, Shabnam doesn’t feel as comfortable with Farah, and she takes the wrong’s person side at one point. Considering it all, Shabnam is a really selfish in all of this. But we are all selfish, and it was just representation of how people are. Shabnam learns how her behaviour hurts others, she gets hurt herself and this opens her eyes to what she was doing to others.
The book in an easy way brings into the story brutal history of Partition in India and genocide in Serbia. It’s great to see important historical facts brought up into a YA books. What’s also great, is how Farah brings in the feminism into the narrative, how she is the voice of reason in the story, challenging our thinking about girls, and Muslim girls in particular.
Shabnam and Farah are so different from each other, and it was great to read about them together. How they met, how awkward Shabnam was about it. The account of their friendship is the best thing about this book, and it’s a shame that we meet Farah in person only late in the book. At the beginning, we only hear about her existence, but we don’t really know what happened between them.
The Thing We Call a Heart is a great read, with many different gems thought it. It has great female characters, Urdu poetry, parts of India history, representation of many different types of characters who happen to be Muslim and their religion means different things to each of them.