February 17th, 2019

Firechick's Book Reviews: Amal Unbound

I give this intriguing children's book about a girl living in Pakistan...an 85/100!

Some people dismiss children's books as being little more than silly, light-hearted fare that don't have a whole lot of substance. But that's not entirely true. Many famous books that have continued to be popular over the centuries have been children's books. Anne of Green Gables, A Little Princess, the Ramona Quimby series, The Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland, A Wrinkle In Time, and so on. Children's books aren't always about cute animals having adventures and drinking tea and laughing over cookies all the time. If that was all they were, nobody would take them seriously at all. Books like that can help someone escape from a troubled life or find friends, and this is absolutely true. It's happened with me, and I came across a random post here while looking at another author's page. It resonated with me a lot, as I was also the shy kid who got bullied a lot, and my escape was manga and anime. Media can take you away to lands that aren't real, but some people IRL don't have that, nor do they have access to an education. Such is the subject of today's review, Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed.

The story centers on Amal, a 12-year-old girl who's pretty happy with her life in a quiet Pakistani village. She has a quiet life with her family, spends time with her friends like any typical girl, and loves going to school, as she dreams of becoming a teacher someday. But her education is put on hold when her mother has a new baby, and her depression afterward forces Amal to stay home and look after her siblings. One day, while she's out at the market, a man hits her with her car and tries to take a pomegrante she bought. Not wanting to give in, Amal tells him to buzz off before running back home. But the incident is far bigger than she imagined: The man she stood up to was none other than Jawad Sahib, the corrupt village landlord who's known for doing terrible things to people over trivial matters. As punishment for calling him out, Jawad takes Amal to his estate and forces her to work as a servant in order to pay her so-called debt to him, changing her world forever. Amal has to do what she can to survive in her new place, especially when she becomes more aware of her master's nefarious dealings.

Seeing as this is a book aimed at children ages 8-13, it's no surprise that the prose is simple. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as kids that age don't care for overly wordy prose or super long paragraphs about stuff that doesn't relate to the story at hand. Prose can either make or break a story, if done well or poorly. In Saeed's debut novel, Written In The Stars--which is a YA novel aimed at an older audience--her prose is simple as well, but it didn't work in the story's favor, as it failed to elaborate on certain events or expand on certain characters or really go into detail about certain events that were pivotal to the story but merely glossed over. Thankfully, the simple prose works better here, as not only is the scope of the novel much smaller, but with the story being aimed at younger children this time around, it also makes it easier for the audience to understand what's going on. Plus, the chapters are relatively short, and the story is always moving forward, so you won't find any filler or rut that makes the story stop in its tracks. The simple prose also helps slow down the pacing. In Written In The Stars, the simple prose made everything go way too fast, and it could have benefitted from slowing down a lot. Amal Unbound avoids this problem, thankfully. So in that aspect, I'm willing to give the book a pass on this one.

It helps that the characters are reasonably interesting and well-rounded here. It's easy to like Amal in particular. She's a nice, reasonably strong-willed kid who knows what she wants and loves her family and friends, but makes mistakes like everyone else. Her stubbornness led to her being taken to the landlord's estate, and while she does lament her position, she also knows she has to make the best of it until she finds a chance to escape. She feels like a real kid in Pakistan, and it's easy to relate to her regardless of your heritage or nationality or differing issues. The other characters have a lot of personality too, like Fatima, the youngest servant in the Sahib estate, and Nabila, a servant who at first dislikes Amal but they eventually forge a decent friendship. But one thing that definitely surprised me was how Saeed portrayed the villain, Jawad Sahib. It would have been really easy to make him into a typical Saturday morning cartoon villain with no redeeming qualities beyond being evil for the sake of it, but Saeed manages to humanize him. He's still portrayed as intimidating, merciless, and a nefarious crook who goes to whatever lengths possible to get his way, but the authoress peppers the book with some scenes that make him feel more human, such as the interactions he has with his mother, who he clearly cares for, and at one point he gets sentimental over a book when he finds Amal snooping through his collection. He's still not a kind person, not even close, but the subtle signs of humanity he has prevent him from falling into common pitfalls that people often hit when trying to write villains. Even his mother, Nasreen Baji, is a lovely, three-dimensional character who, while she is rather ignorant of what's really going on and what her son and husband have been up to, is still a kind person who sticks her neck out for Amal when she learns of her situation. The book also goes out of its way to show that she's just as much a victim of her family's schemes as everyone else is, despite being Jawad's mother. It's also a subtle way of showing that even Pakistani women who have some power and connections still don't have a whole lot of freedom or agency, especially in a country where strict gender roles are still enforced to this day.

My only real gripes with the book are more nitpicks than anything. For one, the book seems to expect you to just know right off what certain Pakistani cultures, clothing names, food names, and other things are, and doesn't elaborate on what they are in detail, such as what a shalwar kamiz is, what a pakora or samosa is, or even what a mehndi is or how the Pakistanis celebrate weddings. I don't know much about Pakistan or its cultural traditions or terminology, so a lot of this flew over my head. It would have been nice if there was a glossary at the end of the book that explained these things in detail. I know Written In The Stars had one, so I'm not sure why Amal Unbound doesn't have one. But that's just my opinion. I also wasn't too fond of Amal's parents. Her mother didn't do much, though she did get better later on, and her father was cold and unsympathetic at times, straight out blaming her for the incident even though it wasn't her fault, then yelling at his wife about it and berating her for getting post-partum depression after her pregnancy, which I'm pretty sure is something you don't just decide to get just because you're tired and don't want to do anything. Other than Jawad, Amal's dad Malik was the only one I didn't like. I wish the authoress made some effort to make him a little more sympathetic.

But those are just minor gripes more than anything. None of those things deterred my enjoyment of the book in any way. I won't spoil the ending, but I like how even though it was happy, it still had a tinge of bittersweetness to it, showing that while a situation may be happy for some, it can be a complete disaster for others. I love that Saeed didn't sugarcoat it and showed the situation and its aftermath in a nuanced way. Saeed also mentioned that Malala Youszafai and her plight inspired the book, and I can totally see why. Even now, most girls in the Middle East get berated, beaten, attacked, or even killed just for wanting to go to school and have their own lives. In her author's note at the end, Saeed any girls are still forced to live lives of indentured servitude, and many of them don't manage to escape or even have happy endings, but it's still important to fight against injustice and to do the right thing, even at great personal risk, because it's the bravest thing one can do, and I whole heartedly agree with that message.

Overall, if you want a genuinely good, uplifting, but not patronizing children's book to read if you have some to kill, check out Amal Unbound when you can. It's one of my favorite books, and I'm sure it's a favorite for others everywhere.