Desert Isle Keeper
Written in the Stars
Pakistani-American Naila is in love with her classmate Saif, but because her parents don’t approve, she hasn’t been able to do more than see him at school. When, frustrated by these restrictions, she rebels and sneaks off to prom, her parents panic that the family’s reputation will be destroyed. They take her to Pakistan on the premise of visiting relatives, and it is only well into the trip that Naila discovers the sinister true purpose of her visit: marriage, with or without her consent. With more suspense than a spy thriller and more horror than a zombie novel, this book is as gripping as it is important.
In a genre in which the forced marriage or marriage of convenience always turns out to be a romantic piece of luck, I appreciated the author tackling a darker story. Naila’s parents are awfully, appallingly wrong, placing their own fixation with image above Naila’s right to her own life and even her own body. Characters who are genuinely convinced that a terrible action is the right moral choice are among the most terrifying. Like slasher-style villains, they cannot be reasoned with, but when the story ends, you can’t shake them off as cartoonish or unrealistic (a sad fact borne out by the real-life stories of forced marriages.)
The author does characterize Naila’s parents consistently in the sense that they always argue for their right to choose Naila’s husband and for Naila’s need to appear virtuous at all times, but I couldn’t help feeling that forcing a marriage on their daughter because she snuck out to a public event was a massive step for parents who had previously been willing to let her go away to college. On the other hand, Naila’s parents are so far outside my value system that it’s hard for me to judge what would or would not be “excessive provocation” from their point of view. I also quibbled that Naila, after a thwarted escape attempt, was kept drugged until her wedding day. I concede that it’s a possibility, but it on some levels felt to me like a way to move the plot forward without breaking Naila’s will too early.
Besides Naila’s parents, the author does a good job creating diverse and complex characters. Saif’s family is progressive and modern. A kind cousin, clearly with some baggage, does her best to help Naila escape. A patriarchal uncle welcomes Naila and her family with hearty generosity until it becomes clear that Naila is not offering the feudal obedience he expects in return; then he cracks down with an iron fist. Naila’s husband is portrayed as ordinary and a decent match for someone who had actually consented. For a traditionally-raised man, he is remarkably patient with Naila until his mother pushes him. As with Naila’s parents, I found that this ordinariness made him and his later actions, including raping Naila, more chilling to me than if he’d been a mustache-twirler.
Although terrible things happen to Naila there, Pakistan is not a grim place. Until Naila discovers the marriage plot, she enjoys herself. She has friendly, welcoming relatives and enjoys some of the beautiful countryside and local food and culture, including the familiar call to prayer. (Although Naila and her family are Muslim, the book characterizes her marriage and her parents’ reputation-obsession as cultural, not religious.) It is only as the plot unfolds and we start to realize that she is isolated, both geographically and in her perception of the marriage, that the setting because claustrophobic. Friends become untrustworthy; relatives and neighbors become surveillance agents. It’s like a rural village dystopia.
I was concerned that Saif and Naila’s relationship gets very little page count considering the extraordinary lengths Saif goes to rescue Naila. I was terrified for Naila in Pakistan because I didn’t want her to be trapped and raped. I was not, however, terribly worried about her losing Saif, the way I often am when the “togetherness” of a hero and heroine is threatened. I was more concerned that she would lose her future dreams of medical school to forcible early motherhood than I was that she wouldn’t get to marry the high school boyfriend we only saw for a few pages. Essentially, while the author made me feel, all the way to my guts, that Naila had plenty to run away from, I only felt superficially “told” that she had something to run to.
I hesitate to call this ending “happy.” Naila does end up with her hero, but she’s got a lot of healing to do. I also felt that one element of the ending, which is too spoilery to specify, was resolved via a cop-out. But on the whole, this page-turner is a well-executed look at a truly awful real-life problem, as well as a peek into the positive and negative aspects of a culture I’ve never read about before. Whether or not you typically read YA, please, please give it a try.