Tuesday, November 10

The Good Daughter - Amra Pajalic

Sammie was happy with her life in Thornbury - her mum was cooler than most of the other mothers, she had a best friend and could slide along at school without any worries. But when her grandmother died and her Dodi came from Bosnia to live in Melbourne everything changed. She went back to being Sabiha, they moved to St Albans to be closer to family and the Bosnian community, and all of a sudden she had to start acting in accordance with community standards.
Irritated by her mother's attempts at finding a suitable boyfriend, frustrated by the close supervision of a neighbourhood where everyone knows your business and reports to your family, and disappointed at the disintegration of her friendship with Kathleen, Sabiha's fifteenth year is not a happy one, and it's all the fault of her stupid grandfather.
Pajalic fits a lot into this YA novel about identity and discovery. All the secondary characters have secrets and back stories that Sabiha is unaware of when the novel opens, predominantly dealing with betrayal and forbidden loves of all kinds.
The reflection of how the dissolution of communism in Yugoslavia changed the cultural norms and identity of Bosnians is interesting, and I liked the way this tension was differently portrayed across the generations.
For the most part Pajalic does a credible job of working this and other background unobtrusively into the text, and Sabiha's own lack of familiarity with her faith allows a degree of explanation that isn't slab-like exposition. That said, I did find the first section, where Sabiha explains why, though they're Muslim, Bosnian women don't wear hijabs and the men are neither turbaned nor bearded, a little forced.
From time to time there are nice turns of phrase, like "Now I had all this Bosnian baggage to drag around and I didn't know how to carry it." I also really liked a discussion between Dido and Sabiha's mother, Bahra, about conventional medicine versus faith healing:
"Have you been taking your tablets?" Dido asked.
"I don't need them any more." She smoothed her skirt.
"All I need is to pray."
"If you don't take your tablets you'll get sick," Dido said gently.

Mum shook her head vehemently. "I pray to Allah and I won't get sick."
"And Allah hears your prayers, but he created medicine so it helps you."
Much of Sabiha's angst is due to her forays into the world of dating, as she finds herself attracted to several boys but indecisive and unsure. Her attitude to male/female relationships is coloured by her mother's experiences as both an abandoned wife and as a sinner (at least in the eye of the community, for she dated several Bosnian men and lived with an Australian), and also by being molested a few years earlier by one of Bahra's male friends. The effects of this traumatic experience, as well as the distress caused by Bahra's illness when she was younger (and Sabiha's subsequent surveillance care taking) are well done.
Despite my concerns that this might be jumping on the band wagon of recent young-Muslim-women-growing-up-in-the-West novels, The Good Daughter is readable, the coming-of-age plot is fresh, and the secondary plots are relatively substantive. There were a few loose ends (the severing of Bahra's relationship with her former closest friend is never well explained), but I'm not a fan of every little detail being accounted for, so that wasn't a problem.
Yet for some reason The Good Daughter felt flat to me. While not everything was wrapped up, there is a markedly last minute transformation, as in the space of a few pages Sabiha becomes sensitive to the needs and concerns of her mother, her grandfather, her friend Brian, her cousin Dina... that seemed a little abrupt. That doesn't account for my lack of enthusiasm throughout, though. After much thinking about why, I think it's because Sabiha is not particularly sympathetic. Though self-centredness is typical for teens, Sabiha almost never sees anything except in relation to its effects on her. She seems sulky, moody and inflexible, and as the novel is told in first person this is something of an achievement by the author. The Good Daughter is certainly accessible to a wider audience, and I'm interested to see what she writes next. - Alex

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