Set in Dublin, Ireland, Adiba Jaigirdar’s YA romance novel holds the story of Humaira “Hani” Khan and Ishita “Ishu” Dey. The two teenage girls attend the same all-girls school and, like many other immigrant children, are expected to befriend one another. Despite ethnicity, the girls share little else in common. Hani is easy-going, extroverted and one of the most popular girls in school, whilst Ishu is the opposite. Ishu’s life heavily revolves around her education and she strives to continually please her parents. The pair could not be less alike. Hani is liked by everyone – the same cannot be said about Ishu.
Despite Hani’s easy-going nature and likeability, her friends do not react pleasantly when she comes out as bisexual. Her closest friends invalidate her sexual identity. In the heat of the moment, Hani blurts out that she is in a relationship with Ishu, a girl who her friends despise.
As an academic overachiever, Ishu hopes to become head girl but to claim that title, popularity and a thriving social circle are key. Ishita agrees to form a pact with Hani to mutually benefit one another. Inevitably, they start developing real feelings. The two Bengali girls have to endure casual discrimination, taunts and dirty tricks to find their happy ending.
The characterisation in this novel is amazing, as is the plot. I instantly felt a sense of connection with both Ishu and Hani – their families, friends and the steps they’ve taken to acclimate to their environment is something that many immigrant children can relate to. Every character felt authentic and realistic; they are flawed and this makes them lifelike. I enjoyed the fake dating trope, what could have easily been a cliché was expertly avoided. Despite the main characters being opposites, the relationship flows naturally and readers follow through captivated.
Themes such as religion, race, sexuality, betrayal and romance seamlessly intertwine to tell the story of Hani and Ishu. The romance embedded in the novel burns slowly amidst events surrounding racism, homophobia and Islamophobia that unfortunately occur in their lives.
I began this book with the expectation of teenage angst and extravagant (and often unrealistic) displays of affection and while angst was a theme, it was also so much more. Surprisingly, this was an emotional read – the novel gradually touched my heart and pulled at the heartstrings. The story of a young South Asian couple was enticing and also thought-provoking as to how the community as a whole navigates and views such relationships.
The Muslim representation is flawless in this novel; as a South Asian female reader, I could identify with the characters, and the mention of taboo subjects and the moments in which I perhaps couldn’t were insightful.
The story as a whole shows how sexual preferences exist on a spectrum and not on a clear-cut binary, and this is incredibly well done concerning Hani’s bisexuality. I also appreciated how biphobia was addressed, particularly concerning Hani’s friends. The acknowledgement of this issue reminds readers that biphobia, as well as the prejudice, casual discrimination and judgement, does not just come from external forces, but also from those who are meant to support us most, and oftentimes, in ways, they won’t even realise are harmful.
The novel also explores microaggressions – it did a stellar job of examining how phrases, jokes and ‘innocent’ remarks that may not appear discriminatory outright, have connotations and lasting implications behind them, regardless of intent. Similarly, this topic reminds readers that such comments don’t just leave the mouths of overt racists who seek to spread hatred with intent but are often weaponised by friends due to a lack of understanding (or lack of wanting to understand) about cultures that differ from their own.
Simply put, if the combination of fake dating, a delicate slow-burn romance, mutual pining and queer characters piques your interest, this novel is worth a read. I can state with affirmation that this YA novel should be considered as essential reading for every school pupil. Overall, Adiba Jaigirdar’s writing makes this a truly exceptional and worthy read.