Title: The Weight of Our Sky
Author: Hanna Alkaf
Publisher: Salaam Reads
Availability: On Shelves Now
Review Copy: Purchased
Summary: A music loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.
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.
*** CONTENT WARNINGS: Racism, on-page death, graphic violence, OCD and anxiety triggers. If you are affected by any of these things, please do consider setting the book aside until you feel more able to take them on. ***
My Review: Melati faces demons daily, but when the race riots begin, her challenges are multiplied. The book opens with Melati explaining that by the end of the school day, her mother has died seventeen times. A djinn has shown her visions of many, many different ways her mother could die if Melati does not obey its commands. She tries to keep the visions at bay, but is not very successful. Being in Melati’s head is frustrating and a bit torturous. She has a strong will though and keeps doing what she can to satisfy the djinn, what we would now call OCD, without making it obvious to people around her that she is engaging in this struggle.
The constant threats of the djinn wear on Melati but everything is magnified with the rapid escalation of violence in their city. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have deadly consequences. Between the djinn and the riots, Melati is living on the edge. Even though there are some down times in the story, the book has an almost constant high level of tension. The author made sure to give a very thorough warning in a three page author note at the front of the book. She wanted to be sure that the book doesn’t cause harm. That said, it is not only a potentially stressful read, but it also offers hope. Melati is fighting for survival mentally and physically and she keeps getting back up when she is knocked down. She is overwhelmed sometimes, but she’s stronger than she believes. This is an amazingly powerful story and I’m so thankful Alkaf shared it with the world.
Historical fiction isn’t always a go-to for everyone, but this tale seems timeless. I appreciated learning about this particular time and place, but it feels very relevant in several areas. Hearing the story directly from Melati provides a way for the mental health issues to be out in the open, at least for the reader. The racial tensions are also timely and informative. The hatred for others is bitter and lethal, but even those who think they don’t hate find that they have prejudices too.
Another plus with this book are the people Melati meets along her journey. Tragedy and loss happens almost immediately, but Melati meets a person who treats her with dignity, respect, and kindness even when she doesn’t feel like it is deserved. She doesn’t think she is very capable of making friends, but even in the midst of the turmoil, there are moments of connection.
Recommendation: Seriously consider the content warnings, but this is an outstanding story that shouldn’t be missed. Get it now.