An Emotion Of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi

The Blurb On The Back:

I’d always carried with me a burden of conviction I could not set down.  I could not deny the beliefs that shaped me any more than I could deny the colour of my eyes.

It made for a lonely life.

It’s been several months since the US officially declared war on Iraq, and the world has evolved.  Tensions are high, hate crimes are on the rise, and the Muslim community is harassed and targeted more than ever.  Shadi, who wears hijab, keeps her head down.  SHe’s too busy drowning in her own troubles to find the time to deal with bigots.

Shadi is named for joy, but she’s haunted by the loss of family and friendship.  And then, of course, there’s the small matter of her heart – it’s broken.  Trying to navigate her crumbling work by soldiering through, Shadi says nothing, each day retreating farther and farther inside herself until finally, one day, everything changes.

She explodes.

An Emotion Of Great Delight is a searing look into the world of a single Muslim family in the wake of 9/11.  It’s about a child of immigrants forging a blurry identity, falling in love, and finding hope in an ever-changing world … 

AN EMOTION OF GREAT DELIGHT was released in the United Kingdom on 10th June 2021.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order AN EMOTION OF GREAT DELIGHT by Tahereh Mafi from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s December 2003.  17-year-old Shadi lives with her mum and older sister Shayda and her mother in the United States.  The family is barely keeping it together financially or emotionally – partly because Shadi’s father is currently in hospital after suffering two heart attacks and no one is sure if he’s going to make it (and Shadi doesn’t want him to) but mainly because everyone is still trying to come to terms with the tragic death of Shadi’s handsome and popular older brother Mehdi a year earlier.  

In addition to trying to deal with all this, Shadi is also trying to process being cut off by her best friend Zahra who only speaks to her these days in order to belittle her or tell her she’s a hypocrite because she thinks Shadi is fooling around with Zahra’s older brother Ali even though Shadi is definitely not doing that and has zero interest in him.  At all.  Really.  

And then there’s the fact that Shadi is a hijab-wearing Muslim at a time when the US has moved on from invading Afghanistan to declaring war on Iraq.  Although Shadi’s family are Iranian-American rather than Iraqi-American, in the wake of 9/11 all Muslims seem to be viewed by Americans with suspicion as one homogenous group.

Ever since Mehdi died, Shadi’s been trying to soldier on and make the best of things – be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, a good Muslim, a good American.  It’s inevitable that something’s going to break … And then one day, it does.

Tahereh Mafi’s YA novel is an uneven mix of melodrama, romance, coming-of-age story and recent historical events that, for me, is hampered by the fact that the main character is incredibly passive so all the events happen to her rather than her driving them.  Although that’s a believable reaction as Mefi is overwhelmed and shutting down, I didn’t find it interesting to read so that and the melodramatic style left me somewhat disappointed.

I picked this up because I had enjoyed Mafi’s previous YA novel A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA, which also had a hijab-wearing main character who had to deal with the hostility thrown at Muslim-Americans in the wake of 9/11.  Like that book, this one mixes a plot that focuses on the fall out of 9/11 for Muslim-Americans with a romance but whereas A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA had a character driven by anger and hurt who’s not afraid of confrontation, here Shadi is driven by grief, confusion and fear and as a result she tries to keep her head down, will not admit her feelings to herself or to others and does not confront anyone who is treating her badly.  

So I’m going to start by saying that I could completely believe in Shadi’s reaction to what was going on.  Plenty of people retreat into themselves in that way and I thought that Mafi wrote about Shadi’s grief and confusion in a way that was easy to follow and relate to.  The problem is that it just didn’t make for an interesting protagonist – especially when it comes to the storyline relating to the breakdown of her friendship with Zahra because although that plot line is about her coming to terms with the fact that Zahra is toxic and was toxic and fake from the start, without that confrontation between them, it all feels a bit empty.  

The simmering romance between Shadi and Ali is meant to offset that in some way but again, it just didn’t convince me – partly because it’s all written in such flowery, hyper emotional language that I found difficult to relate to – but mainly because there’s no foundation to that great love.  Ali’s great love for Shadi seems to be mainly based on the fact that Ali finds her beautiful and they had a few nice chats but clearly that doesn’t extend to remembering that her brother died.  Also, while I get why Shadi was attracted to the handsome, intelligent Ali, again I didn’t get why she loved him other than that Zahra kept accusing her of fancying him.  And I’ll put my hand up to the fact that YA romance isn’t really my bag at the best of times, but ones with this lack of depth and interaction just fail to punch my buttons and leave me cold.

Shadi’s domestic drama is more convincing as each member tries to process their own pain in their own way but in doing so, lock the other family members out.  However the gulf between Shadi and her father is hampered by the fact that there are so few scenes between them and as a result the emotional depth that I needed to reinforce Shadi’s trauma simply wasn’t there.  Equally, I kept waiting for some scene between Shadi and her mother once Shadi learnt that she was self-harming but again, it doesn’t happen so there’s no sense of progress in that relationship.  And again yes that does all ring true from a real life perspective but from a narrative perspective it left me unfulfilled and a little bored.

My final gripe is that for me Shadi’s narrative voice was over-written at times with the emotions tripping into melodrama.  As an expression of inner turmoil, it was mostly fine particularly in those parts where Shadi expresses what it’s like to be a Muslim in America during this time.  However, I did wish there had been some acknowledgement of the differences within Islam between Shia and Sunii and whether her feelings about the Iraq invasion where affected by the history between Iraq and Iran and I say that because while one of Shadi’s complaints is that people see Muslims as all being the same, there’s no real discussion in her monologues about the differences within the community.

All this sounds as if I’m dumping on the book and I want to stress that I didn’t think it was a bad read.  If you’re into this kind of heightened emotion YA (and I know that plenty of people are), then I think you’ll dig this.  I think part of my disappointment comes from reading it in comparison with A VERY LARGE EXPANSE OF SEA and just not finding it as good but mainly it’s because I just don’t dig on passive main character’s – no shade for readers who do like it, just not my thing – but I would still read what Mafi writes next.

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