by Hanna Alkaf
read the full synopsis.
Melati Ahmad has imagined her mother’s death countless times. Plagued by gruesome thoughts she believes are put into her head by a djinn, Melati has developed an intricate set of tapping rituals to tame the monster within and keep her mother safe.
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.
NUANCED PORTRAYAL OF RACIAL TENSION, MENTAL ILLNESS, & RELIGION
I’ll be really honest here: history is a far, far cry from being my strong suit, especially when it comes to historical events that took place outside of my home country. I think this is largely attributed to how the Philippine education system has, in my opinion, an ineffective approach in teaching history (e.g. memorizing facts over understanding context) – but that’s a discussion for another day.
As someone with no significant background in Malaysian history, The Weight of Our Sky was truly an insightful and enlightening experience for me. The story takes on an extremely devastating, severely traumatizing event – the historic race riots of 1969 – and doesn’t shy away from thoughtfully portraying the brewing racial tension between the Malay and the Chinese, the flaws from both sides, as well as the underlying political forces at play. It was tough, dark, and hard-hitting, but also critical and sensitive.
It did not escape my notice that the innocent lives lost were, at times, regarded by the media and by the rioters as mere casualties. In fact, the scene where the death toll was released by media publications particularly hit me hard, as it reminded me of how the mass media, despite its duty as the fourth estate, can also be used as a tool to uphold the dominant ideologies, self-interests, and images as desired by the ruling power. This also brought to my mind the ongoing Philippine drug war waged by our government. I could draw relative parallels between the two (e.g. the way drug war victims are reduced to statistics, government backing this “cause”).
Moreover, The Weight of Our Sky explores both external and internal struggles, wherein the latter comes in the form of Melati trying to work through her anxiety and OCD, and how they interact and, at times, aggravate each other. Much like everything else, Alkaf’s portrayal of Melati’s mental illness is remarkably nuanced. Melati showed feelings of helplessness, guilt, and grief, while continually drawing from her inner strength and was propelled by her love for her mother – and I thought her character was exceptionally written.
In the book, the stigmatization of mental illnesses was visibly present, as evidenced in the way Melati’s mother actively sought out alternative treatment and spiritual healing for her daughter’s disorder and in how Melati herself could only make sense of her OCD by believing a djinn resides inside her.
As I count and tap and tap and count, my fingers shaking, the Djinn’s soft rasp ever-present in my ear, I hear Jay let out a long sigh. “Bloody politicians,” he says softly, shaking his head. “Bloody politicians and their bloody stupid rhetoric, speeches, ideologies. You ever hear anyone say words don’t matter after this, you tell them about this day, when Malay idiots and Chinese idiots decided to kill one another because they believed what the bloody politicians told them.”
STRONG FAMILY THEMES & THOUGHTFUL DISCOURSES ON BELONGINGNESS AND IDENTITY
Amid the danger and the violence of the riots, the strong family themes in The Weight of Our Sky stood out and shined like a beacon of hope and resilience, which I was grateful for. Right from the beginning, I was actively rooting for the reunion between Melati and her mother. I really felt for them, particularly for Melati who constantly felt personally responsible for any harm that could come her mother’s way.
Aside from the beautiful mother-daughter dynamic that brought tears to my eyes, I adored all the characters and all the families I came across in the novel! From the silly aunties to Auntie Bee and her equally endearing family, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about their interactions and conversations. I totally felt the love and camaraderie among all of them (yes, even with rough-around-the-edges Frankie!), and I just wanted to gather them all up and give them all the hugs in the world!
Set against a backdrop of brutal violence and cruelty, the narrative written by Alkaf deftly navigates the discourses on unity, belongingness, and identity with brutal honesty and much-needed empathy. This historical debut novel effectively appeals to the basic human desire of wanting to feel welcomed and accepted. At the same time, it tackles the terrible repercussions of deeply rooted prejudice and of failing to see people as people just because they’re different.
AN IMPORTANT STORY THAT HAD ME WEEPING IN PUBLIC
Fun fact: I finished the last few chapters of The Weight of Our Sky exactly one hour before my hosting gig. I ended up openly weeping in a huge – thankfully, mostly empty – auditorium. The feelings this book gave me are difficult to describe. Reading it was sort of like losing my faith in humanity, only to have it rebuilt brick by brick as the story drew closer to its conclusion. As much as this book is about pain and trauma and anxiety, it is also about strength, faith, and resilience – and I absolutely loved seeing both.
The Weight of Our Sky speaks volumes, offering a multitude of overlooked truths and painful realities that remain incredibly relevant today, just as they were when the riots happened in Malaysia decades ago.
I am not at all surprised that Hanna Alkaf is experienced in the field of journalism because it is quite clear to me that she has really done the legwork necessary to give this story the justice it deserves. The Weight of Our Sky thoughtfully intersects culture, politics, mental health, and religion into a harrowing, gut-wrenching tale that is sorely needed in the world today. This debut novel is a difficult, potentially triggering read, but it is a painful narrative that is undoubtedly relevant to the current political climate we live in. Now more than ever, we need more stories like The Weight of Our Sky on our shelves.
Click to read the content and trigger warnings.
Graphic violence and war; graphic depictions of death; gore; obsessive compulsive disorder; anxiety and panic attacks; death of loved ones; racism; imagery/mentions of blood; and, depictions of grief
The universe smiled upon me and gave me the honor of participating in a Southeast Asian blog tour organized by Vicky @ Vicky Who Reads. Of course, huge thank you to Hanna Alkaf and her publishing team for the review copy! The participants of this tour are all wonderfully talented, incredibly passionate Southeast Asian book bloggers who are more than happy to share their thoughts and experiences with this literary gem. Head on over to Vicky’s blog for the tour schedule and follow along!
Aside from the US/INT’L pre-order giveaway (find the full details here) wherein you can receive a lot of awesome swag such as an enamel pin (designed by Rizal Aziz) and a signed bookplate illustrated by the author herself, you can also win a copy of The Weight of Our Sky and a Kampung House coloring book by entering this blog tour’s international giveaway!
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Have you added The Weight of Our Sky to your TBR? (Because you definitely should!)
🌻 Do you like books with strong family themes, too? Leave a few book recommendations in the comments section below!
🌻 Difficult-to-read, hard-hitting books usually prompt me into doing some things in order to cope from the intensity and to clear my head – in other words, I have a coping mechanism. Which typically involves ice cream, long walks, or sitcom episodes. What about you? What do you do after finishing a novel with dark/sensitive/heavy content?