Book Title: What Was Never Said
Author: Emma Craigie
Publication date: 18/05/2015
Publishers: Short Books
Genre: YA Fiction
Official plot description: 15-year-old Zahra has lived in England most of her life, but she is haunted by memories of her early childhood: the warm sun and loud gunfire, playing with her older sister in the time before “the visitors” came. It is hard to make sense of everything that happened, and it feels impossible to talk about, but when three eerily familiar women arrive unexpectedly for tea, Zahra realises that the dangers of the past could still destroy her.
“Emma Craigie’s poised style is powerful and stripped of sentimentality” – Independent on Sunday
Hey guys! So, today I have finally gotten around to uploading my review of What Was Never Said by Emma Craigie. This is one of the two books which were sent to me by Short Books, a UK publisher of fiction and non-fiction. Short Books describe it as a novel with a “hugely controversial, important and global subject matter at its heart.” I agree that this book is very powerful and eye-opening and I am very pleased to be reviewing it on my blog.
So, about three weeks ago I sat down to start reading this new YA book. I would like to start with some quick notes on the first few chapters of the book which I made straight after I read them. This should give you an insight into my first impressions…
- The main character, Zahra, has a strong voice and is easily identifiable as a young child. The reader can sense her reliance on her sister and mother. She is described to be “in the middle of the big girls.” It highlights her youth, innocence and naivety, making the following events more effective.
- I think the theme of innocent is very important which is why it is represented so early on in the book. The story emphasises the inhumane and unfair nature of what these young girls went through.
- It is interesting that the young characters describe a fascination with snow because they had never seen it before. They are amazed by the idea that “refreshing flakes of cool soft ice could fall from the sky.”
- I thought this was cool! – I really enjoyed the part of chapter 2 which says “If you search on the Internet for the climate in Minnesota you will see a picture from 1881 of a train stuck in snow drifts which tower above it.” As soon as I read it I had to see if it is true – and it is! So here it is (even if it isn’t the best photo quality)…
- Zahra is an endearing and enjoyable character both during her childhood moments and in the present day narrative. I really like the bit in chapter 2 where she says “Watch out! You’re about to be sliced in two by an ice blast!” She is referring to sleet because she had never seen it before.
- The description of the women who arrive at Zahra’s house for tea makes them seem intimidating but also patronising. There is a strange sort of juxtaposition in this chapter because Zahra is very weary of these women but they only ever say nice things, like “What fine daughters you have!” It makes it clear that these are not characters who are to be trusted.
- I really like the whole of chapter 5. Zahra explains the sound of language as she imagines it in her head. She says that the language of Somali “bubbles like spring water on the tongue.” I love how good authors can always find interesting ways to describe things which wouldn’t normally be described. This little chapter highlights differences between the languages of Somali and English, which the main characters use.
So those are just some of my thoughts on the opening of the book. I then went on to read the entire story before sitting down to reflect and gather my final conclusions.
Issue of FGM
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is something I wasn’t actually aware of before I read this book. This shows how effective YA books can be in raising awareness. What Was Never Said is about the lingering threat and fear it causes for the main character, Zahra, across much of her young life. It is an exploration into how the traumatic experiences of the past affect her. They have made her anxious but also courageous and protective.
“...different cultural and religious backgrounds” – Emma Craigie
According to Emma Craigie it is actually a very different novel to what she thought she was going to write. She said she was “exploring the idea of writing a novel about teenage girls from different cultural and religious backgrounds.” After decided to set the story in Bristol she approached City Academy Bristol and discovered a successful student short film, The Silent Scream. It had been made as part of a campaign against FGM. What Was Never Said is another piece in the protest against this practice.
The story is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Zahra. She writes as if she is speaking directly to her older sister, Rahma, who passed away when she was younger. As a reader, I could really understand just how much Zahra cared for her and misses her. It is clear that she looked up to her and has always struggled with her passing.
The cause of her death is part of the poignant overall theme of the book. The message is strengthened by the close personal portrayal of Zahra’s life experiences. We see everything through her eyes and the emotions she feels are very strongly communicated to the reader.
The Portrayal of London
I think the way Zahra and her little sister, Sam, get lost in an unfamiliar place reflects the idea that she felt quite lost without her older sister growing up. She couldn’t have shared things with her sister, such as important life events you would naturally share with a sibling.
Zahra escapes to London when “the visitors” come to her home in Bristol and she takes Sam with her in an attempt to protect them both from the horrors of the past. London is represented as very large and scary, which reflects the themes of secrecy and uncertainty surrounding the issue of FGM.
Zahra didn’t understand what happened to her sister when she was younger, she can’t understand why her mother let the women into the house and she can’t understand how to navigate the strange city. There is a constant fear and a touch-and-go atmosphere to the book. I think everyone can relate to that sense of panic you get when you’re somewhere unfamiliar and this is successfully portrayed in the book. Zahra tries to keep the panic at bay and stay strong for Sam. It makes the story very tense and gripping.
Theme of Family
I found the relationship between Zahra and her mother to be very important because a big part of the storyline is based on the passing of a sister and a daughter. I got the impression that Zahra reminded her mother so much of Rahma that she inadvertently pushed her away in order to protect herself from her own grief. I think the end of the book shows the characters’ healing process and finding some kind of way to move on and put the past behind them.
Furthermore, one of the things I love so much about reading is learning about historical context (however recent) and exploring other cultures. I became hooked by the descriptions of events from back in Somalia. For example, when Zahra and her family are building shelter. This is also another moment in the book which highlights the theme of innocent. Zahra keeps seeing a man who she believes is holding his hands behind his back. She fears he may be concealing a weapon. However, it turns out that the man actually has no arms. This is a very powerful realisation and emphasises how the young character has begun to distrust the world in the midst of the civil war.
I don’t want to say too much about the ending because I don’t want to give it away. I think it would be most powerful to read it for yourselves. I really recommend this book because it sends such a vital message and the important storyline is told with the strongest and most memorable characters.
I hope you enjoyed this review of What Was Never Said. If you want to order yourself a copy, feel free to click here for a link to Amazon. Hope your all well!
Lots of love,