Hope Springs in the Midst of Chaos

The teenage years are among the most turbulent phases of one’s life. It is a period when we shed the layers of innocence that our childhood has wrapped us in. Childhood fantasies are replaced by a growing awareness of the realities that lurk beyond the innocence of childhood. It is a period of transformation, transition, development, and growth. Innocence is slowly being replaced by a keen understanding of how the world works. Wisdom slowly starts picking up. However, these years are often overlooked, oftentimes perceived merely as years of rebellion. Lest one forgets, it is a necessary phase teeming with change that bridges childhood with adulthood.

But for some, the teenage years are more than just years of growth. It is a period marked by the growing consciousness of the ugly realities surrounding them, such as the story captured in Sabaa Tahir’s latest novel, All My Rage. In her fifth novel, Tahir charted the story of two teenagers on the cusp of young adulthood. There were two storylines that prevailed. The first storyline was referred to as the “Now” and was set in Juniper, California. The more substantial of the two storylines, it followed the story of Salahudin, fondly referred to as Sal, and Noor Riaz as they navigate the curves and uncertainties of teenage years. They met when they were still young and have become inseparable since. They were also bound by their ties to the homeland of their parents, Pakistan.

Sal is the only son of Pakistani immigrants Misbah and Toufiq, whose story formed the backdrop for the second storyline, aptly titled “Then”. Their story started in Lahore, Pakistan, when Misbah was eighteen. Her marriage was arranged for by her parents. “The clouds over Lahore were purple as a gossip’s tongue the day my mother told me I would wed.” Her prayer of marrying a “gentle” husband was granted. Toufiq was everything she hoped for. He was well-mannered and a supportive husband. However, a series of unfortunate events made them decide to leave Lahore, Pakistan. They settled down in Juniper, California, where they established the Clouds’ Rest Inn Motel, the commencement of Misbah’s lifelong dream of prosperity and stability.

“Did the soul grow weary for the body? Did the body grow too weary for the soul? Was it betrayal of organs and tissues, sinews and cells? Or was the betrayal that I did not care for my body the way I should have? That when I knew my body was screaming for aid, I ignored it, in service of what the soul wanted, which was the comfort of routine and familiarity. Who was the traitor, truly? The body? Or the soul?”

~ Sabaa Tahir, All My Rage

Like Sal’s parents, Noor was a Pakistani immigrant. Noor was already orphaned; her parents died when she was still six years old, perishing under the ruins of their house toppled down by a powerful earthquake. Noor was the lone survivor, earning a second lease at life by the thinnest of margins after her uncle, Shaukat, dug her up from the ruins. Shaukat, or Chachu, drove for two days from Karachi to Noor’s village and, with his bare hands, was able to rescue young Noor who was trapped in the closet. Chachu then brought Noor to America, leaving his engineering internship. He put up a liquor shop to support him and Noor: “He gave up everything for me. Now it’s my turn.”

Everything seemed spick and span. Sal and Noor were in their last year of high school. They were both excelling academically. Noor was in the upper half of the class while Sal thrived in writing. However, the harmony of their friendship was disrupted by the big “Fight”. For six months, they never communicated until they were reconnected by death, for death was a leitmotif that haunted every corner of the story. Grief and loss were recurring themes. For Tahir, loss takes on different forms, including the loss of one’s parents, the loss of innocence, and the loss of friendship. It was also manifested in the loss of motivation, the loss of inspiration, and the loss of drive to live. Losses also pertained to objects, physical things, and even college admissions. Loss was an amoeba.

Loss aside, the novel also grappled with a bevy of dark and heavy subjects. Substance abuse was a major subject. Drug addiction and drug dealership were tackled in the story while alcoholism was also prevalently explored. The impacts of addiction – the alienation between father and son its most prominent example – were vividly depicted by Tahir. Physical abuse and sexual abuse were also captured by the novel’s vast scope. The novel underscored how abusers often ensure that they don’t leave any physical marks lest questions are raised. Abusers are, oftentimes, the ones the public doesn’t suspect. These abuses leave trauma that doesn’t automatically display. At times, the scars of abuse are suppressed in the recesses of the mind until they exhibit in a different form eventually.

Because of the main characters’ provenance, it was not difficult to surmise that the story would inevitably grapple with a familiar theme, the quintessence of the American Dream. It is no secret that many yearn for that proverbial greener pasture that the American Dream has promised. The green card is the first step. Success and prosperity, as many have learned, are not immediate nor are they guaranteed. The path to achieving that American Dream is riddled with trials and tribulations. It is a foray into uncharted territory where the naive cannot survive. It comes as no surprise that many have given up before reaching that zenith of success.

“It took me a long time to fit in when I was little. Before I knew what was rong with me, the other kids seemed to. They sensed it in the way I kept my eyes down, and the way I didn’t seem to hear the teacher, and the way I did everything a second too late. They never talked to me more than they had to. They never sat next to me. They listened to that part of themselves that whispered: Different. Other”

~ Sabaa Tahir, All My Rage

The novel also captured the migrant experience, a subject that has inevitably become part and parcel of the literary discourse on the American Dream. All of the characters have experienced different forms of discrimination and racism, some were subtle while some were explicit. The newness of Sal’s parents in Juniper made them easy targets for scammers. Their kindness made them easy targets for swindlers. Nonetheless, it was also these experiences that sharpened their senses. But despite the hostility that they experienced, they didn’t let it dim the kindness that shines through them. “In America, on some days the dream feels so close you can taste it. And children, my putar? Children are the greatest dream of all. A dream manifest – walking, talking, venturing into the wide world. Open to success and joy and greatness. Open to wild, spectacular possibility. But open to destruction, also.

With the harrowing subjects and the bleakness that hovered above the story, it can easily be forgotten that the story’s focus is on two teenagers. One is only reminded of this when the story takes place at the local high school that Sal and Noor attended. It was also at the campus that racism and discrimination were prevalent. Bullying was also ubiquitous. The novel has also underlined how academic excellence is the key to entering a prestigious university and how entering a prestigious university is tantamount to prominence, both academic and personal. Getting admitted to a prestigious institution means the world for people like Noor. The tough academic competition that persisted in the classroom was also captured by the novel.

Beyond the dark subjects, the novel brimmed with positive messages. The story permeated with hope, which manifested in different forms. For Noor, hope came in the form of college admission. It was her ticket out of Juniper. For Misbah, it came in the form of a motel she owned and the family she started. For Sal, hope came in the form of healing from repressed trauma. For Toufiq, it came in the form of cleaning up his acts. The novel resonated with a profound message: hope springs eternal. All My Rage was also a story of redemption. It was the story of confronting one’s demons and of bettering one’s self. It is the story of picking up one’s self after tumbling down. “This isn’t who he is. This isn’t who we are. We weren’t always like this.”

Through the alternating points-of-view of Misbah, Noor, and Sal, the novel was woven together by Tahir’s prose. The story was riddled with metaphors, where an accent was compared to a “subtle swell of an ocean”, and clouds “were purple as a gossip’s tongue.” It was typical young adult fiction language and execution. Noor and Sal were your typical teenagers but they were never treated as such. Their emotional maturity projected adulthood. After all, they had to mature earlier than most. Nonetheless, as Tahir has demonstrated, there is still room for improvement, for growth.

“I’ll survive this. I’ll live. But there’s a hole in me, never to be filled. Maybe that’s why people die of old age. Maybe we could live forever if we didn’t love so completely. But we do. And by the time old age comes, we’re filled with holes, so many that it’s too hard to breathe. So many that our insides aren’t even ours anymore. We’re just one big empty space, waiting to be filled by the darkness. Waiting to be free.”

~ Sabaa Tahir, All My Rage

The most interesting voice, however, was Misbah’s. It was lamentable her storyline was thinner compared to the main storyline. At times, her storyline was a disruption to the natural flow of the story. Her point-of-view was poignant but ephemeral even though at times, it felt like the story’s more interesting and evocative voice. One would also occasionally come across Punjabi terms. However, their interjection was unnatural, perhaps to render authenticity to the story. Another seminal subject the novel explored was identity, especially in the case of Noor. Noor wanted to reconnect with her homeland through religion. On the other hand, Chachu was averse to anything related to their homeland. He wanted to sever all ties they have with Pakistan. His motivations and reasons, however, were never elucidated.

All My Rage was Tahir’s first foray into non-fantasy books. She has established a reputation as one of this generation’s best fantasy novelists. The first two books in her An Ember in the Ashes quartet were listed by Time Magazine as part of its 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time in 2020. Despite this, she managed to swiftly transition to non-fantasy stories. All My Rage was a lush exploration of seminal and timely themes such as the migrant experience, the American Dream, sexual and physical abuse, and trauma and healing. But more importantly, it was a story about roaring back against the disadvantages and challenges that one was dealt with. Contrary to its title, All My Rage was a story brimming with hope. Its closing lines were both poignant, heartwarming, and held a lot of promise for Sal and Noor.

“Now I know what I’d write about: a boy, and how stupid he was to think that a building, a home, was worth more than a human life. I’d write about his selfishness and his regret, and how it ate away at his insides until his body was just a rotten shell for a spirit he didn’t recognize anymore.”

~ Sabaa Tahir, All My Rage
Ratings

65%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

Earlier this year, I was searching for books to include in my 2022 Books I Look Forward To List. One of the titles that kept popping out in Most Anticipated Lists is Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage. Its premise immediately piqued my interest, hence its inclusion in the aforementioned list. Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy of the book shortly after its release. It was the first new (2022) book I read and was part of my March 2022 Women’s Literature Month. The story was, well, interesting even though it grappled with similar subjects. Strangely enough, it actually reminded me of Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also A Star, only bleaker, only heavier. However, I wasn’t as invested with the story of Noor and Sal as I was with Misbah’s. I found the former predictable and I struggled to make a connection with Noor. A book reviewer mentioned that she was an “emo” and I can understand why. But despite its flaws and bleakness, Tahir made up for it with her accessible writing and beautiful language.

P.S. With regards to the interjection of Punjabi words, I wished that Tahir just provided the translations as footnotes or endnotes rather than providing them after the sentence or the word.

Book Specs

Author: Sabaa Tahir
Publisher: Razorbill
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 374
Genre: Young Adult Fiction

Synopsis

Lahore, Pakistan. Then.

Misbah is a dreamer and storyteller, newly married to Toufiq in an arranged match. After their young life is shaken by tragedy, they come to the United States and open the Clouds’ Ret Inn Motel, hoping for a new start.

Juniper, California. Now.

Salahuddin and Noor are more than best friends; they are family. Growing up as outcasts in the small desert town of Juniper, California, they understand each other the way no one else does. Until the Fight, which destroys their bond with the swift fury of a star exploding.

Now Sal scrambles to run the family motel as his mother Misbah’s health fails and his father loses himself to alcoholism. Noor, meanwhile, walks a harrowing tightrope: working at her wrathful uncle’s liquor store while hiding the fact that she’s applying to college so she can escape him – and Juniper – forever.

When Sal’s attempts to save the motel spiral out of control, he and Noor must ask themselves what friendship is worth – and what it takes to defeat the monsters in their pasts and the ones in their midst.

From one of today’s most cherished and bestselling young adult authors comes a breathtaking novel of young love, old regrets, and forgiveness – one that’s both tragic and poignant in its tender ferocity.

About the Author

Sabaa Tahir was born to a family of Pakistani immigrants. She grew up in the Mojave Desert in Ridgecrest, California, where her family’s eighteen-room motel is situated. At a young age, her interest in literature was cultivated. She read fantasy novels and her brother’s comic book stash. She studied at the University of California Los Angeles.

Post-graduation, she took a job as a nighttime copy editor at The Washington Post. In 2015, she made her literary debut with the publication of An Ember in the Ashes. It would be the start of a quartet. It was followed by A Torch Against the Night (2016), A Reaper at the Gates (2018), and A Sky Beyond the Storm (2020). The first two books in the quartet were listed by Time Magazine as part of its 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time (2020). In 2022, Tahir’s first standalone and non-fantasy novel, All My Rage, was published.

Tahir is currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area.