I’m not sure the route by which this ended up on my TBR. Was it from a Book Riot article on Muslim authors? Due to a fellow book blogger’s review? Could go either way on this, but I knew that I wanted to read The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan (Scholastic Press, 2019) almost immediately; the premise of the story ticked so many of my ‘THIS IS FASCINATING; MUST READ’ boxes.
I love when that happens. What didn’t happen was this being at the library the first two or three times I looked for it, which is both frustrating (for me!) and wonderful, because it means other people are reading it. Hurray for you, other local people! You have awesome taste in books.
Rukhsana Ali is seventeen, Muslim, Bengali-American…and a lesbian. Having a secret girlfriend isn’t something she can share with her uber-conservative parents, so she sneaks around, sneaks out, hides who she really is, nods and smiles and grits her teeth when her mother talks about Rukhsana getting married (seriously, Mom! College first, especially now that Rukhsana has a full ride to Cal Tech!). Her stress levels aren’t helped by her friends, who don’t get how uptight her parents are and how difficult it is to hide such a huge part of herself. Even Ariana, her girlfriend, doesn’t quite get it.
But all good schemes must come to an end, and when Rukhsana’s parents learn of Ariana, they hustle her off to Bangladesh (no matter that it’s near the end of senior year. Exams, what???), supposedly to visit her ailing grandmother, but the longer they’re there, Rukhsana begins to suspect their motives weren’t quite honest. And when arranged marriage becomes very real and very immediate, Rukhsana will have to dig deep, find all the strength she’s gathered from reading her grandmother’s diary, and fight for who she loves and who she truly is.
Remember that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where the dude thrusts his fist into another man’s chest and rips out his beating heart? Reading this will make you feel like the second guy, your heart torn from your chest and paraded around by the author for everyone to see. At times, Rukhsana’s options are so limited and her parents, especially her mother, so dictatorial and insensitive, I felt claustrophic about her situation and her future. Her friends are both wonderful and frustrating, in that they don’t fully listen to her concerns and don’t try to understand the difficulties her cultural ties present in coming out; her relationship with Ariana is a typical teenage romance, in that they’re obviously in love but still learning how to communicate and navigate more mature emotional territory. Sweet, but also occasionally frustrating for both Rukhsana and the reader.
But Rukhsana’s parents. Hooooooo boy. Her father doesn’t get as much air time as her mother; Mom is…an uncomfortable-to-read character for the majority of the book. She’s the main source of homophobia and bigotry, and some of the things she says to her daughter and the ways she tries to remedy Rukhsana’s homosexuality are horrifying. Her grandmother, however, is an absolute gem; everyone should have a grandmother who loves them so unconditionally.
Content warnings: there’s a lot of homophobia and anti-gay slurs in the book; a character is murdered because he’s gay; there’s a diary entry that details marital rape and spousal abuse, and a later one that, quite chillingly and almost unexpectedly, includes child molestation (if not child rape; it’s not specified). Ms. Khan’s style is light, which helps the book stay away from Dementor-style darkness, but it’s still not a fun or safe-feeling read.
There’s a massive turnaround that I don’t want to spoil; some readers have complained that it felt a bit whiplashy and unrealistic. I totally understand that, and I also get how said turnaround could have happened, when the characters who experienced it were confronted with the consequences of the exact same attitudes that they had. It’s understandable, and personally, while I wouldn’t have been quite as forgiving as Rukhsana was, at least not so quickly, it did make for a pleasant ending.
The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is a gut-punch of a YA novel, and was definitely worth the wait. I hope the other library patrons who checked it out before me enjoyed it as much as I did.