**Content warnings: Racism, graphic violence, on-page death, OCD and anxiety triggers.**
“…Your people, my people, our people, they’re everyone. They’re Malaysians. It’s not Malays killing Chinese or Chinese killing Malays. It’s stupid people killing stupid people.”
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.
But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.
With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.
“How do you expect unity to grow from seeds of self-interest? Look at the riots in Penang last year….”
This book was an incredibly powerful historical fiction that really brings the bloody history of Malaysia in 1969 to life. I was able to relate to it from a cultural and religious perspective as I am part Indonesian and Muslim so the cultural values, language, religious referencing places, food, even the civil unrest is something I was very familiar with. I was engrossed from the first page as the writing was very easy to follow but I agree the story may be difficult for some readers to stomach and as I recommend this book, please note my recommendation comes with a warning. The content in this book is definitely not for a younger audience – it’s definitely an older YA novel.
Our protagonist is Melati Ahmad’s torment and journey really came to life in my mind and it was heart wrenching to read about innocent people trapped in a war zone but aren’t just fighting for survival – they are battling their own demons as well, in this case, the djinn that keeps controlling Melati’s mind in horrific ways. Yes this book is quite confronting and very detailed in bringing out the violence and Melati’s torment. Personally, I was able to handle it as I felt the author really nailed it with her writing and explored these themes very well. I really kept turning the page yearning to know what happens next. I shed tears as I read the epilogue – it was so touching and final. I was convinced to pick this book up sooner than I planned and I wondered why I took so long to read this.
I highly recommend this book to readers who love historical fiction with an element of ‘urban fantasy’ (which I believe is a metaphor in this story) and strong cultural representation. Please note, again, my recommendation comes with a trigger warning. This book contains graphic details and violence, death, racism, war and mental illness and I believe this to be more suited to older readers. Please do not read this book if you feel it may be harmful to you in any way.
Happy to say this is another book love for 2019. Just amazingly written, very insightful, a book I won’t forget anytime soon.
Publisher: Salaam Reads – subsidiary of Simon and Schuster