The Weight of Our Sky is Hanna Alkaf’s historical YA debut, and is set during the 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The novel follows a Malaysian teenager named Melati whose severe OCD and intrusive thoughts have led her to believe that she has been possessed by an evil djinn, and who must find her mother in the aftermath of the riots.
I was actually in a rather strange mental place while reading this book, because my grandfather was in the hospital for excruciating pain in his face and neck that my family feared was another stroke or a cardiac event of some kind. I was somewhat distracted while reading, but my fear and worry for my grandfather made me empathize all the more with Melati’s fear and worry for her mother. This is a tense book, and Alkaf’s use of the first person perspective really drove home Melati’s constant wrestling with her djinn, and how her mental illness horrifically exacerbates her thoughts and feelings surrounding an already terrible situation.
This novel had the potential to be really, really dark, and Alkaf’s brilliance lies in her ability to explore the full emotional depth of dark topics without robbing the narrative of hope. The Weight of Our Sky deals with the violent realities of racism that has gone beyond all control or reason, and my fear for Melati and her Chinese friend, Vincent, was very real. However, the book is full of reminders that there are just as many good, caring and compassionate people as there are violent, murderous bigots, and none of the violence or after-effects of violence that Melati encountered felt as though it was inserted for shock value or otherwise used cheaply.
I do not have OCD and therefore cannot speak to the accuracy of its portrayal in this book, but it felt well done to me. Melati’s mental illness is not romanticized and actually defines a huge part of her life, and her chosen personification of her intrusive thoughts as an evil djinn made sense to me as a reader. It affects her relationships and her ability to function in stressful situations, but it’s also something that she learns to fight back against.
My only complaint with this book is that the ending left me unsatisfied. There were a few loose ends that did not get resolved, which made me feel mildly frustrated — but at the same time, this made The Weight of Our Sky feel even more real to me, because in real life not everything is resolved and wrapped up with a neat little bow. Overall, however, I enjoyed my reading experience, and I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a peek into a time and place that often goes unexplored in English-language fiction.