Title: The Weight Of Our Sky
Author: Hanna Alkaf
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: February 5th 2019
Rating: 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.
But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.
With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.
Thank you to the author and NetGalley for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review!
Trigger warning for racism, on-page death, graphic violence, OCD and anxiety (which are provided in the author’s note at the beginning of the novel.)
“DA MANA BUMI DIPIJAK, DI SITU LANGIT DIJUNJUNG. HAVE YOU HEARD THIS BEFORE? IT MEANS WHERE WE PLANT OUR FEET IS WHERE WE MUST HOLD UP THE SKY. WE LIVE AND DIE BY THE RULES OF THE LAND WE LIVE IN. BUT THIS COUNTRY BELONGS TO ALL OF US! WE MAKE OUR OWN SKY, AND WE CAN HOLD IT UP – TOGETHER.”
The Weight Of Our Sky is an emotionally devastating read from start to finish, transporting the reader back in time to 1969 Kuala Lumpur to witness the historic race riots that began on May 13 in a way that literally feels like you are experiencing it first-hand. This book is so unapologetically Malaysian, and Southeast Asian, which is incredibly rare in YA, and I learnt so much about this significant moment in history that I would otherwise never find in a textbook. If I was watching this as a movie, I would have cried at all the happy moments scattered between the sadness, but I cried anyway because this book truly tugs on all the heartstrings and leaves you feeling, somewhat, like a broken record.
The first-person narrative allows the reader to experience both internal and external horrors through the eyes of Melati Ahmad; not only do we get to witness the devastating consequences of the riots, but we are also exposed to the graphic thoughts of death and destruction that Melati experiences as she navigates the aftermath in search of her mother whilst in a constant battle with her mental illness.
Mental illness is a prominent theme within the novel – Melati has OCD but she sees it as the presence of a djinn she needs to please with specific counting rituals in order to keep everyone, and especially her mother, safe. From my own experience, mental illness is something that is rarely discussed or addressed in Muslim communities and Asian communities, and too often linked with lack of faith and djinn, so I really loved seeing this depiction on the page.
Alkaf’s writing, for me, was reflective of Melati’s OCD, rhythmic in a way that echoes the act of counting things, but also the pacing of the music she loves listening to. The narrative was also interspersed with many metaphors to offset the vividness of the violence, and there were some really beautiful passages about prayer and Quran that I loved because the writing perfectly captured what praying and reciting the Quran feels like for many Muslims.
I also loved meeting all the secondary characters within the novel, who showed strength, resilience and unity during a time when racial tensions were tearing their communities and their country apart. When her best friend is murdered by the enemy, Melati unexpectedly finds safety and solidarity with a Chinese family. The narrative does exceptionally well in reflecting the way in which there are always good and bad people on both sides, as well as exposing the internalised racial prejudices that exist in our communities even today.
As a reader, I also hesitated with Melati when it came to knowing who she could and couldn’t trust, and I loved seeing her relationship with Auntie Bee and Uncle Chong, as well as Vince and even Frankie, develop from an unlikely friendship to something that resembled family. Vince, in particular, was so soft and pure, and I loved how they were able to have a platonic relationship without a romantic storyline or even a hint of attraction towards each other.
Overall, The Weight Of Our Sky is remarkable and special and truly testament to Hanna Alkaf as a writer; her words have a tendency to bury deep inside your heart and make you feel something when you’re least expecting it. And like the wounds of this particular moment in history, Melati’s story is likely to stay with you for a very, very long time.