Publication Date: 7th May 2016
Publisher: Short Books
Source: Received from publisher for review
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15-year-old Zahra has lived in England most of her life, but she is haunted by memories of her early childhood in Africa: the warm sun, the loud gunfire, and happy days playing with her older sister before "the visitors" came. It is hard for Zahra to make sense of everything that happened, and the terrible events are impossible to talk about, but when three familiar women arrive unexpectedly for tea, Zahra realises that the dangers of the past could still destroy her.
What Was Never Said is the powerful story of a girl navigating the demands of two very different and conflicting worlds; a tale of surviving loss and overcoming fears.
Big thank you to those at Short Books for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for my full, honest review.
Before going into this novel, I really did not know what to expect. I knew a little about FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and the consequences it can have on the individual but after reading this novel, I realised just how much of an invasive, torturous procedure it is and the life long effect it has on the girl. This novel made me think good and hard about culture, practises, feminism and society's expectations of women.
What Was Never Said has a unique way of playing on the idea of saying something without saying it, of talking about something without talking about it. Zahra's flashbacks to life in Somlia offer great insights into her life there and her villages practises which I found both interesting and somewhat difficult to read. Zahra often down-plays the FGM practise by calling it "cutting" or using throw away phrases, one of which struck me hard - "anyone can steal from an open purse". Although the author does not go into any graphic details, the reader is aware of what occurs with this practise.
Another aspect of the novel I really enjoyed was the way the innocence of Zahra is portrayed. She is a young teenager, who has experienced a lot of shocking things such as war, grief, yet still retains this sense of innocence and hope. The other characters, such as Annie and Yas, were all wonderfully and equally compelling. School friends Annie and Krystal are a stark contrast to Zahra, they drink, smoke, are sexually active. The novel focuses a lot on the opposites, war and peace, Somalia and England, Zahra's culture and Annies culture.
I think the novel also does a good job of portraying the fact that FGM is a cultural practise and is in no way a religious practise. Zahra's interaction with the Iman show and educate the reader that this is a practise that has been going on for so long that it has become the "norm" which is such a horrific thing.
This novel is not an easy read. For such a short novel, it packs an almighty punch. Although the subject matter of FGM is uncomfortable to read about, it is something we should be more and more aware of as an estimated 2,500 girls in Ireland and 60,000 in the UK could be living with the effects of FGM right now or are currently at risk. I think this is something that everyone needs to be aware of and I think that there should be more education on the subject. I think this novel would be great for informing school girls and boys about the subject and opening up a debate.
A harrowing, important and though provoking novel about such a cruel and excruciating practise. If you are looking for more info on FGM, I would highly recommend the documentary The Cruel Cut by Leyla Hussein (2013).