Editor’s Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for a fair, honest review.
Tahereh Mafi, author of the acclaimed Shatter Me series, returns with a wrenching, intimate novel that gives voice to those who were silenced in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s 2003, and 17-year-old Shadi is reeling from a slew of unspeakable tragedies, both as a U.S. citizen and a devout Muslim. The U.S., stewing in its devastation, lashes out at her and members of her community. And behind the walls of her home, Shadi’s own family is falling apart, wracked by the sorrow of losing one of their own: her mother, blinded by anguish. Her father, confined to a hospital bed. Her sister, straining to hold them all together.
Shadi herself, plummeting through an abyss of her own design.
This novel was no fairytale. It was bleak, cutting, desolate. As I made my way through, each tragedy cinched itself around my heart. I would mistakenly believe that there is no more to be said. Then another truth would be revealed, another door broken down, and the strangle-hold on my heart would tighten even more.
As a 17-year-old girl, and as a Chinese-American during the scourge of COVID-19, the scapegoating Shadi experienced resonated with me. It’s a strange agony, to ache both for the country you belong to by birth and for the country you claim by blood. To understand your country’s anger, yet want to rage at them for misplacing it; to hate the wounds inflicted on your country, yet feel responsible for them, though you’ve done nothing wrong. Mafi captured this piercing loneliness with the kind of specific intimacy that only comes from experience; clearly, this story was as much for our enlightenment as it was a purging for her own sake.
Reading it felt very much like a revelation, a tribute on the Muslim community’s behalf. Mafi managed to insert me right within the heart of one, providing glimpses of their cultures and conventions — the food they eat, the types of hijabs worn, the terms of endearment used. Having not been born until after 9/11, I’ve only ever heard second-hand the mistreatment of Muslims in the U.S., but Mafi’s brutally honest portrayal cast Islamophobia in a more unforgiving light.
Despite the amount of empathy I carried for Shadi and her suffering, An Emotion of Great Delight came with drawbacks. Mainly, the sheer influx of pain that never let up from the very first page until the very last line. Understandably, one might feel that way if they had to endure all that Shadi did.
Still, I kept anticipating any glimmer of light, any indication that she was ready to step on the arduous path towards healing, to no avail. Mafi, unfortunately, fell into the same trap as she did with Juliette in Shatter Me: when writing about tragedy, the grief itself should never reign supreme over recovery. That is one of the most cardinal principles when writing tragedy, and that’s what makes writing tragedy so challenging — you risk falling into the deep-end, unable to wade out. Shadi’s dialogue was comprised of broken whispers and stilted fragments, quiet and frail. She seemed to resign herself to her own suffering, and I didn’t end up feeling inspired by her — only sad, wishing she could find some semblance of strength.
The pace of the story itself felt contradictory. It takes place over a relatively short period of time, yet Mafi’s writing seemed to drag it out. Although her prose was objectively exquisite, I think in this case, the less-is-more philosophy would have been more impactful. Her stylistic, descriptive writing led me to skip many paragraphs that lingered too long. It didn’t keep me on my toes, and I began to expect more of the same. As a result, the fullness of her characters suffered too, and I didn’t truly connect with them.
Overall, in terms of story-telling and content, I’d rate An Emotion of Great Delight 3 stars. However, the messages that undergirded the story were invaluable. Bigotry is still relevant. Racism is still relevant. And I think, at the end of the day, that is what Mafi truly wanted to hammer in to her readers.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Tahereh Mafi