Saints and Misfits - S Mahmud Ali

So this was incredible. It's the experience of a Muslim-American girl navigating high school, dating, identity, appearance and modesty, bullying, sexism and assault . . . part of what I appreciated about it was the breadth and complexity of the (real-world) world-building the author did to tell this story. We often talk about excellent world-building in fantasy or science fiction, but it takes incredible skill to represent real people and experiences in a way that's recognizable and meaningful. 


Ali does a great job with a wide cast, as well as the main character. Everyone has dimension, complexity, a role within the narrative, but aren't limited to a one-note portrayal for the purposes of getting a point across. The MC has a lot to work through, from the pressure of exams and achieving a much-desired academic future, to coping with the expectations of her family and religious community, expectations that she places on herself, assault by someone seen as unassailably righteous within her community, and adolescent explorations of identity such as unsuitable crushes, image-crafting, social media and self-presentation.


In 2017, it's worth noting that this portrayal of a Muslim teen participating in an active Muslim faith community, observing religious practices and exploring her personal attitudes, comfort level, and beliefs around hijab specifically is an unusual and diverse perspective in English-language mass-market fiction. As an outsider to the Muslim community, I found the story, the characters and the scenarios easily comprehensible, and appreciated the opportunity to see through Jana's eyes and get a different perspective on her community. While it's useful to understand historical and cultural influences on today's climate, I felt like the narrative was a helpful reminder that choices around fashion, self-presentation and religious practice are also made on an individual basis, and that teens (and adults) need space to explore those choices and may bring new meaning to them.


Ali wove many influences including, notably, the work of Flannery O'Connor into the narrative to craft a story that introduces questions and themes without hitting you over the head with them, which I appreciated. Questions like how to have integrity, how to be a person you can respect, within the framework of wider expectations and personal choice. While there was a lot going on in the book, I found it to be a surprisingly fast, engaging and even, particularly at the end, emotional read. Also: Nua & Jana flirting is one of the most adorable teen romances I've read.


Bonus points: Canadian author! I don't read a lot of YA contemporary, but I'll be keeping an eye out for more from this author; smart & exceedingly well crafted read.