Where I Belong by Gillian Cross 2010
Oxford University Press
IQ "She lifted her head and stood there, defiant and immovable, invisible except for her eyes. I found myself thinking, if only Dad could see her face, he'd be able to persuade her-as though the veil was a barrier between their minds as well. And I could feel how it was frustrating to him." Freya, pg. 156
Bandits but not the fun kind. Supermodels but not the haughty kind (well OK one of them isn't haughty). Abdi is from Somalia, but he's never been. He was born in the Netherlands and now lives in London (specifically Battle Hill). He dreams of going to Somalia and he also wants his father to be able to move to London with them (his father remained in Somalia because his parents were sick and needed to be taken care of). Abdi's father used to visit, until Abdi turned ten and moved to London, then the visits stopped. Khadija has loved in Somalia all her life and she can't understand why her father wants her to move to London to get an education. Somalia is where her family is and that's where she wants to be. But she has no choice in the matter. Freya is the daughter of world-renowned fashion designer, Sandy Dexter. And Sandy is going to be the scarf (oh yes there will be lots of fashion metaphors in this review) that pulls Abdi, Khadija and Freya together.
FREEZE. Let's take a moment to gaze at this sensational cover.
We're back. Looking at the cast of characters, you probably think there's a love triangle. WRONG. Abdi, Khadija and Freya are just friends and that is marvelous. There is no romance in this book. It's purely a story of friendship, adventure and fashion. I suppose that could count as a spoiler but whatever. if you only read a book that's about romance, I warned you. Instead this is a good book about friendship. Sort-of. we don't learn much about Abdi's friends and Khadija doesn't have many friends. We meet some of Freya's friends as well, but it seemed out of place. We are told by Freya that she does indeed have friends and as if to prove that, the author throws in some random friends with random problems. I would have rather Freya not have had friends at all or get more backstory on her friend's problems. In addition to the supporting characters not being fully fleshed out, the story can drag at times. The story sounds like it might be action-packed, but it's really not. Which is ok, but even though I didn't mind the lack of pirate/bandit action, I did mind how time seemed to fly for the main characters but nothing seemed to really happen. It's an odd thing to try and express and I hope I'm making sense. Furthermore, I wish I had gotten to know all the main characters better. The story is told in alternating points of view between Abdi, Khadija and Freya but the characters remain on a superficial level. Not till the end do we see Abdi's more intimate side and while we witness Khadija's more emotional side, we are only told about Freya's emotions.
I did like the fact that Somalia is the common thread (!). You have to suspend a bit of your disbelief (after we are all dealing with famous fashion designers and Somalian bandits, a most unlikely combination), but that allows you to fully savor the story and not scrutinize it as much. There are several different attitudes expressed in this story, an attitude that Africa is a dangerous place and that is all it has to offer. Another attitude held by a character is that Africa is an 'exotic' place, in a way the character is only trying to use Africa (there's a ring of colonialism or imperialism in that respect). And Khadija wants people to see all that Africa, specifically Somalia, has to offer. The good and the bad. She wants to become a model for noble reasons and she's an admirable character. One of my favorite parts of the story is when the author describes Sandy and Freya trying on the veil. "So how did it feel? If you're not veiled yourself, that's what you want to know, isn't it? [....] The first answer is-terrifying." (pg. 59-60). Freya then goes on to describe how she feels invisible in the veil, because most people go out of their way to avoid her. Eventually Freya says that the veil gives her a sense of power, because she can keep people guessing and hide herself from the world (in a sense) if she wants.
Where I Belong could be read by middle grade students or young adults. One of the most fascinating parts of the story comes from its fashion background and revolves around the character of Sandy, the iconic fashion designer. Sandy is not only the scarf (!) that holds everyone together, she is also the glue (although it could be argued that Khadija is the glue as well). The fashion commentary and the peeks at Somalia will help this story to stand out and trying to get to the climax of the story will keep readers turning the pages (and it is worth it although it wasn't elaborated on which was frustrating). There's nothing really wrong with this book, I just didn't love it or even really really like it. I liked it and I'd recommend it to certain people, but I'm not sure if it's for everyone. I always think it's weird when I don't have a favorite character and that is the case here (I did like Khadija more than the others though, from the little I learned about her). Ultimately my problem with the story is that several promising storylines are introduced but they are too easily wrapped up or pushed aside and the characters remain stock characters.
Disclosure: From the darling Kaz. Hugs!