In A Very Large Expanse of Sea, Tahereh Mafi flexes her writing chops. Her newest, a blunt, politically-charged realistic fiction, is a complete departure from the dreamy fantasy work she’s written in the past. And, despite some rocky passages and awkward dialogue, Mafi succeeds in showing readers her versatility as a storyteller.
“I was stuck in another small town, trapped in another universe populated by the kind of people who’d only ever seen faces like mine on their evening news, and I hated it.”
A Very Large Expanse of Sea follows Shirin, a sarcastic, guarded teen who’s struggling to find her place in small-town America after 9/11. Shirin is noticeable for a variety of reasons– her love of breakdancing, her lovingly handmade clothing, her haughty attitude, but, most of all because of her hijab. We meet Shirin as she is preparing for her newest high school in a line of many, putting up walls and dealing with xenophobia in both small and large instances. But, it turns out her newest school might not be exactly the same as her others, thanks to a surprising interest from golden-boy Ocean James, who takes a sweet, sincere interest in her.
Despite its poignant premise, A Very Large Expanse of Sea feels like nothing too ground-breaking. The story was undoubtedly necessary but due to Mafi’s stilted writing and unnatural dialogue, I struggled to immerse myself in the world Mafi created. I am confident this was just growing pains and Mafi will grow into herself more as a writer, so I am excited to see what she does next.
Shirin’s story, which Mafi said is [the most autobiographical thing [she’s] ever written,” comes at a critical political point. A Very Large Expanse of Sea is raw and eye-opening, but also, somehow, hopeful. This holiday season, I would urge you to pick it up- for yourself or as a gift for others.