Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Unsettled by Reem Faruqi

Middle schooler Nurah Haqq, 13, and her older brother Owais are not too happy when their father decides to uproot his family, moving them from Karachi, Pakistan to Peachtree City, Georgia. For Nurah, it means leaving behind beloved grandparents, even if her Dadi (grandmother on her father's side) who has Alzheimer's no longer remembers her name, and best friend Asna, and so, so many of the things she loves about living in Karachi. 

Arriving in Peachtree City, the family lives in one room in an extended stay hotel. Like her brother Owais, Nurah is a swimmer, and finds relief from feeling alone and overwhelmed at the pool in the Recreation Center. Both decide to tryout for the swim team, and that's when Nurah makes her first real friend, a girl named Stahr, who shows up on the second day of tryouts completely covered in a long sleeve shirt and tights, just like Nurah. It turns out that Stahr is covering the black and blue bruises because father regularly hits her with his belt. The two new friends begin have lunch together at school and get to know each other's secrets. Stahr lives 8 houses away from the house the Haqq family buys and moves into. When her mother is late getting home, Stahr goes to Nurah home, and apparently develops a real liking for the foods Nurah's mother serves them at teatime.  

Later, when Nurah's mother has a miscarriage and becomes depressed, it is Stahr's mother, Penelope, who has had a number of miscarriages, that shows up at their house, helping her mother get over the loss, and becoming her mother's first American friend. 

In Karachi, Nurah was one of the loudest in school but in Peachtree City, she's very quiet, At one point, however, Nurah stands up to the two bullies who relentlessly pick on the school bus monitor, a man who stutters and has lost his left arm. The bullying stops, but the boys try to make Nurah pay later. But when she should use her voice, Nurah lets her jealousy over her brother's swimming ability get the best of her, and she keeps silent after seeing two older boys going into the Rec Center's men's locker room, knowing their intention is to teach Owais a lesson. 

Acknowledging her own complicity in the attack on Owais is a pivotal moment for Nurah, who begins to realize that standing out by being her true self and being true to herself is more important than trying to conform to being someone she is not. 

Written in lyrical free verse, Unsettled is a powerful story loosely based on the author's own move from United Arab Emirates to the United States when she was 13. I loved the details that Faruqi has included  which give this book a feeling of authenticity. I especially love food details because food is like a shorthand way of telling readers so much about a culture - what they eat, when they eat, how it is prepared. But readers will also find a number of other important thought-provoking themes touched on in Nurah's story, including abuse, bullying, colorism, depression, and memory loss, as well as adjusting to a new country and a different way of life. Yet, I think most readers will feel empathy and hope rather than overwhelmed by it all. 

I thought Nurah was a wonderfully flawed, yet inspiring character in this coming of age novel, and I felt that Faruqi did a great job of fleshing out her other characters, although I wish I had gotten to know Nurah's Baba better. It was because of his job they made such a big move, yet he didn't feel developed enough. 

Nurah's story has so many poignant moments in it, moments that are specific to being uprooted from everything that you love, moments that are specific to a newly arrived-in-America Muslim girl, and moments that everyone can relate to, all of which makes this such a compelling book to read. 

I couldn't recommend this book highly enough and the good news is that you will find a delicious sounding recipe for Nurah's Aloo Kababs that she brings in her lunch and which I am definitely going to try. 

Unsettled will be available on May 11, 2021.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an ARC received from the publisher Harper/HarperCollins

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