The Weight of Our Sky Hardcover – February 5, 2019
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From School Library Journal
"Melati’s growing strength gives hope to readers: If she can fight her inner demon and save the day, then they can, too." -- Booklist, November 2018
* "This is a brutally honest, no-holds-barred reimagining of the time: The evocative voice transports readers to 1960s Malaysia, and the brisk pace is enthralling. Above all, the raw emotion splashed across the pages will resonate deeply, no matter one's race or religion. Unabashedly rooted in the author's homeland and confronting timely topics and challenging themes, this book has broad appeal for teen readers." -- Kirkus Reviews - starred review, December 2018
* "At the sentence level, Alkaf’s use of first-person narration expertly (and, in some cases, painfully) places readers inside Melati’s head as she experiences internal and external horrors....Echoing contemporary race relations, the subject feels especially relevant. VERDICT Alkaf’s immersive, powerful writing make this a must-purchase for all YA collections." -- School Library Journal - starred review
"Alkaf offers a gripping fictionalized account of the 1969 post-election riots in Malaysia, limning acts of bravery and tolerance that unreel alongside the slaughter perpetrated in the Kuala Lumpur streets." -- Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February 2019
"With her debut young adult novel, The Weight of Our Sky, journalist Hanna Alkaf provides heart-pounding, graphic insight into the seismic life shifts experienced by residents of Kuala Lumpur in the days directly following the May 1969 Malaysian Riots.", Shelf Awareness *Starred Review*
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She spends much of the book trying to be reunited with her mother, a nurse, and expending much energy trying to hide her disorder. She, a Muslim, accepts that Djinns exist, as it's part of her religious beliefs. That is much easier for her to accept than that it is a mental illness - for in 1969 in Malaysia, she would not have received good mental health care and medication that would help her to deal with her condition. She would have been labeled crazy and shunned or institutionalized. So she tries to keep her inner demon at bay with endless counting, always in multiples of 3. She is taken in by a kindly Chinese Christian woman and kept safe for much of the book, but she must leave the nest to find her mother. It's just been the two of them since her father, a police officer, was killed on the job. That was when her OCD came.
This is a thoughtful read in the current political climate as well, where anyone "other" is suspect. To us European Americans, the difference between people of Chinese heritage and Malaysian heritage isn't necessarily obvious. Cultural and religious differences, sure, but being able to identify someone from their appearance is more difficult unless you're looking at a woman in a hijab and a woman wearing a cross (or other religious symbol). The violence between the two cultures seems as sensible as building a big old wall to keep out people who are essentially just like us and who only want a better life for their children.
The constant threats of the djinn wear on Melati but everything is magnified with the rapid escalation of violence in their city. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have deadly consequences. Between the djinn and the riots, Melati is living on the edge. Even though there are some down times in the story, the book has an almost constant high level of tension. The author made sure to give a very thorough warning in a three page author note at the front of the book. She wanted to be sure that the book doesn’t cause harm. That said, it is not only a potentially stressful read, but it also offers hope. Melati is fighting for survival mentally and physically and she keeps getting back up when she is knocked down. She is overwhelmed sometimes, but she’s stronger than she believes. This is an amazingly powerful story and I’m so thankful Alkaf shared it with the world.
Historical fiction isn’t always a go-to for everyone, but this tale seems timeless. I appreciated learning about this particular time and place, but it feels very relevant in several areas. Hearing the story directly from Melati provides a way for the mental health issues to be out in the open, at least for the reader. The racial tensions are also timely and informative. The hatred for others is bitter and lethal, but even those who think they don’t hate find that they have prejudices too.
Another plus with this book are the people Melati meets along her journey. Tragedy and loss happens almost immediately, but Melati meets a person who treats her with dignity, respect, and kindness even when she doesn’t feel like it is deserved. She doesn’t think she is very capable of making friends, but even in the midst of the turmoil, there are moments of connection.
As the author mentions in the content warning note, the subject matter is heavy, but the book still finds ways to show the beauty of humanity alongside the extreme ugliness of violence and hatred and gives glimmers of hope and joy and love amongst the wreckage and despair
This story is beautifully written. The writing is captivating, the characters are vividly real (and so many of them endearing), and the plot kept me on the edge of my seat, even in the "quieter" moments.
As an American who sadly does not possess much knowledge of Malaysia, I was previously unaware of the race riots that this book takes place during. Though this story is fiction, it brings to light an important piece of history that shouldn't be forgotten (and in many ways feels all too applicable to things happening around the world today).
I loved this book. It made me tear up with grief, relief, and joy. It's beautifully done. If you are in the right place mentally and emotionally, don't wait another second. Read this book. I truly believe everyone can benefit from it.