I’m not gonna lie. I was a little disappointed when I didn’t get picked to participate in Vicky’s blog tour for The Weight of Our Sky. But I shrugged and let it go – after all, there were only limited slots on the tour, and I’m sure she and Hanna had their reasons for choosing the bloggers who did end up on the tour.
But then, lo – lightning struck, and the twin goddesses Vicky and Hanna smiled down upon me and gifted me an e-ARC anyway. I was so grateful, I finished the book in one day, quickly rated it a 5 on Goodreads, and began screaming on Twitter how much I loved it.
Today, this wonderful book comes out into the world. If you’re not yet convinced that you should be reading it, scroll down to check out my review, and then get your butt over to Amazon, Book Depository, or wherever it is your purchase your books, and buy it now!
Title: The Weight of Our Sky
Author: Hanna Alkaf
Genre: Historical, Young Adult
A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.
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.
Trigger warnings: Racism, graphic violence, character death, anxiety and OCD triggers
☕ Plot ☕
Mental illness rep, Southeast Asian rep, Muslim rep, non-white/non-western historical fiction. This book has so many things going for it before you even crack it open. When it made the rounds on Twitter, I was like, this is going to be so awesome.
I was most decidedly NOT disappointed!
The Weight of Our Sky begins by showing us the day-to-day struggles of Melati, a 16-year-old girl with OCD. She believes that the OCD is a djinn inside her who threatens to kill her mother, and only certain rituals – counting in groups of threes, tapping her fingers to a certain beat – will stop the djinn.
This is already a hugely stressful situation for anyone to be in, let alone a young girl. But then, the race riots of 1969 happen, and Melati is caught right in the middle of it. She and her friend, Safiya, head out for an afternoon of watching movies in Jalan Petaling (which is now a wonderful neighborhood that you should totally visit, FYI) and find themselves right in the heart of the eruption of racial tensions between Malays and Chinese.
Melati is rescued from the theater by a kindly old Chinese woman named Auntie Bee, who insists that she stay until the violence is over. With a 24-hour curfew soon in place, Melati has no choice. Throughout the book, she only has one goal: find her mother. The djinn’s voice gets stronger and stronger in her head, but she also struggles to hide her compulsions from the family that took her in, rationalizing that they’ll be creeped or weirded out.
The setting provides a ripe situation with which to explore not just Melati’s illness, giving us a raw, vulnerable look into what having OCD really means, but also racial tensions and relations in Malaysia. Navigating a story about racial tensions is difficult enough (and I would highly advise white people to NOT DO IT – just, don’t do it, avoid that pitfall and save everyone the trouble) but Hanna pulls it off flawlessly. You see angry, hateful thoughts on both “sides” (a word I’m hesitant to use, mind you), and you also understand where both of them are coming from. There’s a particularly poignant scene involving both Malays and Chinese that made me emotional enough that I needed to put the book down for a little while and just process.
This book explores the fairly recent racial history of Malaysia in the best way possible. I learned so much from this book, and found myself looking up the race riots to know more. This was such a breath of fresh air in the historical fiction scene which is chock-full of white narratives.
☕ Writing ☕
If I had to describe Hanna’s writing in one word, it would be this: evocative. This book made me feel things, y’all.
Like I said earlier, I learned so much about Malaysia’s history and it made me want to learn more! I also got a little salty toward the Philippine educational system. I mean, European and American history is part of our curriculum aside from Philippine history, but the history of our Southeast Asian neighbors isn’t? I mean, prior to this book, I was only vaguely aware of the Chinese and Malay tensions – and that was because I majored in political science in uni!
I felt myself drawn so much into the story. Hanna handles everything with so much sensitivity and awareness; her writing just perfectly brought the story to life. I particularly appreciate the insertion of little details into the story, such as Melati’s love for the Beatles, which really grounded you in the fact that this book takes place in the late sixties.
(Fun fact: The presence of Beatles music is also an important aspect of the 1986 People Power Revolution, when the Filipino people overthrew the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. According to my parents, both of whom were young college activists at the time, there were sections of the crowd at EDSA that would occasionally sing the song Blackbird. I haven’t heard this corroborated by anyone else though, so this may just be family apocrypha.)
☕ Characters ☕
Let me just say that throughout this book, I felt like I was talking to Melati. I wanted to reach through the book and give her a hug and reassure her that everything would be okay, but at the same time, I also couldn’t help but admire how strong she was. Her strength isn’t immediately obvious, but as you go through the book and see her struggle to master her illness, try to understand both aspects of the race conversation, and maintain her steadfast hope that she would find her mother, you can’t help but realize that she is adaptable and resilient, and you can’t help but root for her.
The rest of The Weight of Our Sky’s characters are a study in the lessons of family, conflict, and friendship. You have the kindly Auntie Bee and her husband Uncle Chong, who are PRECIOUS AND MUST BE PROTECTED AT ALL COSTS. Their sons, Vincent and Frankie, find themselves with opposing views regarding the race riots, but at no time at all is Frankie – who believes that the Malays are in the wrong – portrayed as a villain. Instead, he is portrayed as a product of the beliefs around him, as are we all.
Hanna imbues her characters with life, with emotions and feelings and complex thoughts and personalities. Each one feels carefully-crafted and multidimensional, and takes the reader on a deep-dive journey into the chaos and fear of those times. All of them brings this already amazing book to new heights, and I am just completely in awe of Hanna’s mastery, of how well and deeply she knows her characters – especially Melati.
☕ Overall ☕
The Weight of Our Sky is a hard-hitting, emotional punch to the gut, in the best way possible. It is raw, vulnerable, and just absolutely stunning. There will never be enough words to praise how magnificent this book was. If you can handle the trigger warnings I mentioned above, I highly urge you to read it. You won’t regret it.