Book Review: These Impossible Things by Salma El-Wardany

These Impossible Things – Salma El-Wardany (Grand Central Publishing)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. Pubdate was 7 June 2022.

Malak and Kees and Jenna are best friends. They are a tight-knit trio, linked both by their Muslim upbringing and the ups and downs of being first generation women in Muslim families, growing up in England. We are introduced to them as they are each nearing the end of their university careers, faced with the question of which path they will choose next. Malak and Kees are both in serious relationships with white men; both of these relationships are unknown to their families and each woman knows that to choose the man they love is to face rejection from their families and communities. Jenna is determined to end up with a Muslim man but until then skirts the boundaries of what she can get away with. As each woman makes her choice, their sense of self and their friendships are shaken.

What I liked best about this novel is that it reflects a reality I’ve witnessed around me but have rarely read about on the page. I’ve witnessed several friends, both in high school and university, who had to balance these very tensions. Growing up in a culture and language that their parents were largely unfamiliar with. Young girls and women feeling the pressure to be chaste and meek and end up with a good man from their own culture, preferably one their parents picked out. While I’ve never trod those paths myself, the book feels like a very honest and realistic portrayal of these struggles.

I also liked that while all three of the main characters are Muslim women who’ve grown up within the same Muslim community, their families all come from different nations and have their own distinct ideas they bring to the conversation. When Malak decides to move to Egypt on her own, we get a glimpse of the extra confusion of returning to a home country that she no longer belongs to.

The story alternates perspectives between the three women and while I was glad of the balance between the three stories, it also turned out to be a weakness of the book overall as their three voices didn’t feel distinct enough. They were all smart and driven and wanted to please their parents and now, a few weeks after finishing the book, I can’t remember much about them individually.

The other major hesitation I have is the portrayal of Muslim men. At various points two of the characters end up in serious relationships with a Muslim man and both turn out to be abusive. (Spoiler alert, I guess, but it’s pretty obvious when it’s coming.) There is no other relationship shown to offer a counterpoint which left a bad taste in my mouth at the end of the novel. I have to acknowledge that I’m not qualified to speak on this so I’ll tread carefully and simply say I would have liked to see more nuance in the male characters here, and that includes the white men.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: These Impossible Things by Salma El-Wardany”

  1. Yeah, that’s a tough one. Certain ideas about the role of a man can be pervasive in a culture, but not the only path followed. It’s hard to discuss as an outside of the culture, but even if you think about your own culture and what is normal within that, you see lots of variation, too, I’m sure.

    1. Yes, definitely. I saw some of these things in the Punjabi community I grew up around and so the way this author portrays men tracks with some of what I’ve seen. But without a male character to counterbalance the abusive ones, it ends up feeling like a statement about all Muslim men. Especially because the white male characters here are all kind and thoughtful. But again, as an outsider, I don’t think I can really say this is right or this is wrong.

  2. i love stories about arab characters but ive been hesitant about this book–idk, i feel like i wouldnt like it–and ive heard another reviewer say exactly the same thing about the male characters 👀

    1. It’s great to see a book like this that focuses on modern Muslim women, so I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading it. But at the same time is just wasn’t quite it for me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s