Laila remembers her father crumpling to the ground, shot to death. She remembers being rushed from the palace to a waiting airplane...then the blur begins.
Now, she is safe in the United States, but she doesn't feel safe. Nothing here is familiar. Laila knows that although they are still alive, things are definitely different. Gone are the extravagant clothes, parties and food. In its place are bare cupboards with no income. Her mother has changed as well. She meets with a group of men from her own country, and they talk secretively about things. There is shouting and anger involved in every conversation. Laila sees a man lurking in the corners and is sure that he works for the American government. But why is he so interested in her family?
What Laila wants "is an interpreter. Not for the language, but for life" in this new place where the rules she has always lived by no longer apply. The girls here dress differently, act differently. She doesn't understand their culture but wants to try. Then there are the boys, especially Ian. Everyone is telling her what she already knows but she isn't sure she can give back the affection he shows. Life in school is confusing at best, with her dangling between what she knew and what she needs to know.
Having friends helps tremendously, and it's through small talk with them that she hears, for the first time, about her father and the horrors he committed. War, murder, embezzlement....this can't be the same father she loved, who protected her from her evil uncle, who indulged her....So she goes to the most dangerous place to find out more information.
The library shows Laila the truth not only about her father, but about her country. It's falling into shambles without a government to take over after years of dictatorship. It's filled with corruption from the legacy her father left into the hands of her uncle, fervent in his religion and will to dominate. And with this truth comes the knowledge that somehow, her mother is still involved in the politics there, working with the Americans but to what end, she doesn't know. Laila is kept in the dark but she is making sure she doesn't stay there for long, and when she slowly uncovers the truth, safety is no longer an option for her or those she cares for.
J.C. Carleson writes a beautifully balanced book about love and hate, war and peace, tradition and truth. Laila represents innocence through oppression as she slowly fights through this to find out that the truth can be an ugly place to live. Carleson's characters are deep and synonymous with the many facets of not only American life, but Middle Eastern life as well and weaves several familiar stories about the turbulent Middle East without designating where Laila and her family is from. It's a story about two sides, but which is the darker side depends on who the character is. One of many things Carleson is best at is the beauty in her writing. There were several times I had to stop and re-read portions of the story simply because of how lyrical her writing is. Her other strength is being able to transport the reader into not only a different world through a story, but also to the world of modern day Middle East and how politics, both domestic and foreign are involved. The reader will also appreciate how Carleson uses her own past experiences to make this novel come alive. You know you have a good book when you read it in one sitting. This is a must have book for all collections.
Recommended by: Naomi Bates, Librarian, Texas USA
See more of her recommendations: http://www.naomibates.blogspot.com
Editor's Note: BEYOND BULLETS: A PHOTO JOURNAL OF AFGHANISTAN by Rafal Gerszak and Dawn Hunter is a non-fiction title that pairs well with this book...suggested by Naomi Bates.