The Weight of Our Sky
by Hanna Alkaf
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Another very strong debut novel, and while it's still early in the year, also high on my list for best new book read in 2019. Hanna Alkaf and the publisher may consider The Weight of Our Sky to fall within the YA/MG category, so it is appropriate she felt the need to caution readers on what might be disturbing content: graphic violence, death, racism, OCD, and anxiety triggers. It was not as graphic as those warnings led me to expect, then again, I've never suffered the sort of trauma depicted, so my viewpoint was perhaps too detached. It is possible some will not consider this to be SF or Fantasy, only a psychological thriller, but since I only review within the speculative genres I declare it is, since I'm not passing up the opportunity to praise it.
Within the Muslim community many consider Djinn to be real, in much the same way Christians think of angels and demons. The protagonist, and first-person narrator, is 16-year-old Melati Ahmad, who lives in Kuala Lumpur. She is taunted by a Djinn who has convinced her that if she does not do everything exactly right her mother will die. The first sentence establishes this: "By the time school ends on Tuesday, my mother has died seventeen times." The Djinn presents her with visions of the many ways her mother will die if she does not complete her OCD rituals, which usually consist of counting, whether it be floor tiles, bricks in a wall, books on a shelf, or categorizing people on the street as to age, gender, or ethnicity. The number three is key. Whenever a count comes up to a number not divisible by three she has to start over, all the while the Djinn is mocking her. Later, when relating her condition to another, she says she thinks three is important because it is how her life was before, her family consisting of her father, her mother, and herself. Then her father, a policeman, was killed in the line of duty a year or so before, shattering her world.
The year is 1969, and with Chinese political factions winning in the recent elections, tensions are rising between native Malay and Chinese immigrants. Many Chinese consider the Malay to be backwards peasants who should be more grateful for the way Chinese have helped the economy, while Malay think Chinese and other immigrants have taken too many jobs away from them. Riots break out on May 13, as Melati and her best friend Safiyah are at the cinema watching a Paul Newman film. A Chinese gang breaks into the theater, segregating Malay to one side of the room, telling everyone else to leave. A Chinese woman is able to convince them Melati is Eurasian and that she knows her from her neighborhood, and since Melati is lighter-skin they believe her and allow them to go. Now the Djinn has another death to taunt Melati with, that of Safiyah's. The woman tells Melati to call her Auntie Bee. After running from various mobs, hiding in a drain culvert, then an abandoned shop until it is torched by rioters, they manage to escape and encounter Auntie Bee's son Vincent, who takes them home. Vincent is at first reluctant to help Melati, then relents under admonishment from his mother. That is not the case with his brother Frankie, who is very anti-Malay, so he has to make himself scarce as long as Melati is allowed in their home, or else he will have to suffer the wrath of his mother.
Phone service is out, and a curfew has been declared, so Melati cannot go home, or find out where her mother is, or whether she is even still alive. During the ordeal, Melati has to question her own opinions, whether or not she may share some of the racist tendencies she has seen in others. She recalls epithets and slurs other people have used against Chinese and other immigrants, but comes to the conclusion she does not feel that way. Especially in her regard for Auntie Bee, and to a lesser extent Vincent, and she thinks they feel the same. Not so with Frankie, with whom she clashes on several occasions. Vincent volunteers to help the Red Cross, and Melati goes with him on his rounds of delivering supplies, hoping to find her mother. When they are able to get to her neighborhood they find most of the homes burned. Where is her mother? Is she alive, and will they ever find each other? I won't answer those questions, just say that Melati's journey is perilous and heart-breaking, but also inspiring when she encounters others just trying to help wherever, however, and whomever they can. Melati in turn helps a young Chinese girl she finds hiding in the theater when she goes back thinking her mother may have searched for her there.
Highly recommended. I'm not going to tell you the meaning of the title, but rather just say, read this book to find out. It's relatively short, less than 300 pages, and while I'm normally a slow reader it's so good I rushed through it in a little more than six hours, with just a few minor breaks. I don't know if the Djinn is real, but Melati believes it is, so that's good enough for me. By the end, she resigns herself to the fact it will always be with her, but she also knows she has the fortitude to withstand its attacks. I got the impression this is a stand-alone book, and while I would welcome more stories about Melati, even if that never happens I will still be on the lookout for anything Hanna Alkaf writes in the future. You should too.
For historical reference, check this Wikipedia article on the 13 May Incident.
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