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The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

Review

The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

Seventeen-year-old Rukhsana Ali finds herself straddling two cultures. In her home, her conservative Muslim parents love and want the best for Rukhsana. Unfortunately, “best” is synonymous with tradition. Tradition in their family means spending more time in the kitchen than on homework, wearing “respectable” clothing and becoming the wife of a Bengali boy from a nice family. Rukhsana finds it near impossible to keep up the façade that she is okay with this path her parents want her on. She has a full ride scholarship to Caltech, she wears makeup and cropped tops to secret parties and she loves her girlfriend, Ariana.

She plans to keep up the act for just a few more months until she is out of the house, studying at her dream college and able to be with the girl of her dreams without fear of word getting back to her parents. If she can just make it until then, everything will be okay. She can come out to her parents without fear because she’ll be independent from them, and she can be out and open with Ariana which would put an end to a lot of their fights. Everything will work itself out if she can just hold out for a few more months.

That all goes out the window when Rukhsana’s mother catches Ariana and her together. Upset and ignorant, Rukhsana’s parents blame American culture for turning their daughter into a lesbian and decide it would do her good to visit her family in Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, Rukhsana is in for a complete culture shock. While she is greeted by her extended family, the beautiful sights and smells and words that make her feel more connected to the heritage that she loves, she is also faced with the harsher aspects that greatly differ from what she’s known in Seattle. A world where arranged marriages are practically a given and intolerance is seemingly highly regular. Disoriented and unsure of how to get back home, Rukhsana is worried --- but not entirely alone. She meets people who support her without question and who will fight for her. And sometimes, that’s all you need to find your way. THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI is about the relationships we have, intersectionality, love, growth, and hope.

"THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI delivered on everything it promised and then some. It was almost hard to believe this was Sabina Khan’s debut....A long overdue addition to YA and will without trouble find its way into the hearts of many."

I had high hopes going into this book; how could one not? The truth is that in YA, we see a lot of the same characters in the same places going through the same things. Admittedly, in recent years we’ve been seeing more diverse people and settings from young adult titles --- we’re seeing multiple LGBTQ+ books being published a month instead of just a few in an entire year, and the same goes for books written by and starring POC --- but the industry still has a long way to go. So to have a book with a main character who comes from a Muslim family and identifies as a lesbian was exciting enough and certainly piqued my interest. When I learned that much of the book would take place in Bangladesh, I knew I wanted this book ASAP. Just upon reading the premise of the book, I could tell it would be dripping with culture, as it’d be an #OWNVoices novel and it wouldn’t be watered down just to appeal to a Western audience. Reader, it was and it didn’t. In fact, the playing down of her Bengali and Muslim cultures to be more palatable to her American friends is a significant part of the book, as well as an important part both for those who can relate to Rukhsana’s struggle, and to those of us who can’t and maybe aren’t always as aware of this problem as we should be. THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI delivered on everything it promised and then some. It was almost hard to believe this was Sabina Khan’s debut.

With a book like this, it is far easier to list its few faults than list its many accomplishments. I could go on for hours praising Khan’s ability to make one’s mouth water for foods and beverages they’ve never had, how she can fill a plain, quiet, cold room in America to a yard with the suns heat blazing down with the sweet aroma of blossoming flowers engulfing you. I could list all the intricacies of each character, but then I’d be depriving any future readers of how carefully they were handled. Her descriptions are always full of luster and, even when in-depth, are never tedious. As it goes, this is the type of book I’d tell authors and publishers to take note of. While this was not a flawless book, and I will get into that in a moment, Khan seems to naturally excel where many falter.

THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI features many plot points, and while they were interesting to see and done well, this was probably the weakest part of the story and where Khan’s inexperience showed.  While Rukhsana’s situation is quite high stakes, it all felt a bit much in certain places. There was always something going on, some alternative storyline trying to keep your interest. While they were indeed interesting, they were not necessary and only felt to take away from the main points of the book. Certain issues would seem to be resolved in a flash only for the purpose to invite in another problem. Things were never really left to ruminate, it was go, go, go. I wouldn’t go as far as to say these situations were useless or unimportant --- there were points to them, they weren’t merely free-floating “let’s-throw-it-and-see-what-sticks” storylines --- but I do feel they were an act of overcompensation to try to make sure the reader stayed interested. This is hardly an uncommon trend in debuts and by no means wrecked the book, but it did sometimes take me out of the story that I was so greatly enjoying, due to the feeling of whiplash it would give me.

Other than that, I think the only other qualm I had while reading this book was Kahn’s reliance on telling rather than showing. It is at times quite clear that this was a debut, despite all the absolutely wonderful writing, inexperience would poke its head in a fair amount. Again, this hardly ruined the book, but it was something I was aware of while reading. But, given all the natural talent that shines through in THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI, I’m not at all worried about any future projects Khan may embark on as this is surely a bump that can be easily smoothed in hardly any time at all. Sabina Khan has an abundance of talent and I cannot wait to see what else she may produce.

While THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI is a contemporary, I think it also succeeds as a thriller. At least, this proved to be more of a thriller to me than most books actually marketed as such. Khan is able to make your heart race and ice water run through your veins (ah, the cliché sayings I’d never gotten to experience prior to reading this book!). The tension is palpable, the stakes are higher than the Empire State building --- these fictional problems are reality for so many. I would find myself shaking with rage and fear, but also laughter when the situation called for it. Even when life is at its hardest, at its scariest and most uncertain moments, there is light somewhere. A simple joke can make a difference and Khan realizes this and allows them to exist in a book that encounters some of the scariest moments in a person’s life. The comedy in here is probably one of my favorite things about it, and certainly has some of the funniest lines I’ve read in a while. Such tumultuous emotions from the get-go keep the reader on their toes, constantly thinking they must surely know what is to happen next, only to have Kahn turn them on their head. A most welcome surprise.

THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI is a long overdue addition to YA and will without trouble find its way into the hearts of many. This would be great for fans of WRITTEN IN THE STARS by Aisha Saeed. THE LOVE AND LIES OF RUKHSANA ALI is n exceptionally important read for those that can closely identify with Rukhsana and for those that do not.

Reviewed by Olivia Will on February 13, 2019

The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali
by Sabina Khan