Review by Layla Abdullah-Poulos
$17.99, 292pp, Paper
Access to a monumental repository of literature is a blessing but not a perfect one. Avid readers, instructors and literary critics often encounter novels with similar themes and messages. When this happens, the focus on the execution of the author in telling the story intensifies.
The books in Muslim fiction include an expanse of work, but there are a couple of subgenres to which many authors gravitate – children’s, teens and young adult (YA).
As not only an avid reader but a literary critic researching Muslim fiction, I’ve encountered many children’s books and young adult novels, which gives me the opportunity to see some consistent themes and concentrate on how authors relay them.
Like numerous Muslim authors, Saba Syed contributes to the teen/YA subgenre with her book The Acquaintance. Syed tells a story about covered Muslim teen Sarah Ali, a star pupil crushing on a non-Muslim boy and confounded as to what to do about it.
I was initially hesitant to read The Acquaintance. Honestly, Muslim fiction is saturated with teen novels containing tropes about immigrant-descent Muslims seeking to be “normal” according to parameters of the non-Muslim gaze and invariably with parents who don’t understand them. It’s tiresome and restricts a spectrum of American Muslim teen experiences to cliched themes.
I was pleasantly surprised by Syed’s overall writing. The author is one of a few in the subgenre who writes effectively in the first person-no easy feat. Authors tend to over-emphasize the main character, limiting the rest of the characters, something Syed attempted to avoid. Although there were instances of info-dumping, I think the author did so to make sure characters were not left vapid.She centers main character Sarah while still giving some of the primary characters depth. I particularly liked the relationship between Sarah, her father and brother. The author avoided some stereotypes about immigrant and immigrant-descent Muslim men. It was apparent that the men in Sarah’s life maintained closeness with her despite conflicting schedules.
Her father was not the typical out-of-touch parent. Granted, he didn’t know what his daughter was up to half the time, but what parent does?
Another refreshing inclusion that Syed made was African American Muslim characters. Sarah’s best friend Jasmine and her family are a welcome departure from the usual erasure of a large American Muslim demographic. Many non-Black American Muslim authors ignore the rich backgrounds of the American Ummah, choosing to center limited backgrounds, which may or may not be indicative of some of the isolated realities of Muslims. The author should be applauded.
Syed fell into a couple of banalities, Jason Connor for one. Of course, Jason is white, another disturbing trend in teen/YA Muslim novels. Considering the frequency of stories about Muslim girls with crushes on non-Muslim boys, one would think that every Muslim girl is on the hunt.
Muslim authors apparently want to convey a cultural reality, but most are over simplistic: Muslim girl wants a non-Muslim boy—Muslim girl wrings hands and vacillates between being a good girl and harlot.
Given how smooth Jason was, it’s incredible that Sarah didn’t relent at least once. Similarly, it is hard to believe that with the intensity of love he consistently professed, the male protagonist would exhibit such an uncharacteristic amount of restraint. Hormonal teens rarely have that much self-control.
The Acquaintance is a solid premier novel. Saba Syed has some obvious talent, and I look forward to reading more from her.