Before Mina, my life was like a completed jigsaw puzzle but Mina has pushed the puzzle onto the floor. I have to start all over again, figuring out where the pieces go.
When Michael meets Mina, they are at a rally for refugees – standing on opposite sides. Mina fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat and a detention centre. Michael’s parents have founded a new political party called Aussie Values. They want to stop the boats. Mina wants to stop the hate. When Mina wins a scholarship to Michael’s private school, their lives crash together blindingly. A novel for anyone who wants to fight for love, and against injustice.
A well-written book on a timely and important issue that also happens to be entertaining and sweet.
Sometimes, maybe even most times, you fight back. But sometimes you can end up dignifying their arguments when you defend yourself. And even if you’re in the right, it’s exhausting to live your life in constant resistance.
I won’t lie, I was a little worried when I saw the blurb that When Michael Met Mina was going to be a bit too kumbaya, holding-hands-we-all-love-each-other vibe, but my worry was unnecessary – the book got the point across without being too heavy handed about it.
Mina was a delightful character; someone who is easy to empathise with. She’s been through a lot, but in other ways is a typical teenager, wanting to go out, spend time with friends, avoid the beady eyes of her parents, etc. She also calls it like she sees it, and damn if that isn’t impressive.
And she drops those truth-bombs like there’s no tomorrow.
‘Well, what does a Facebook like mean, really?’ Paula asks.
‘Don’t get philosophical on me now. Facebook doesn’t do ambiguity or nuance. You click like, you better well freaking own it.’
Starting over as the scholarship kid at a new school is never easy, doubly so if you stand out as an immigrant like Mina so obviously does. She’s the outsider, subject to stereotypes and misinformation, someone who has lived through what these other privileged classmates can only discuss in abstract.
The whole photograph feels staged, as if he’s just playing out a role for her benefit, like some kind of third-world kid mascot helping people from the first world find themselves.
I really enjoyed witnessing Mina’s developing friendship with Paula, who is an awesome best friend to have. Mina’s loving relationship with her mom and step-father is also delightful to witness – they each have their own private sorrows, but stand strong together.
I was also impressed with the depiction of Michael, whose parents have founded a political party that essentially wants to stop the flow of refugees and migrants, and keep Australia for Australians unless those who wish to come there fully assimilate. The author does a great job in showing his internal struggle as he comes to his own conclusions about what he feels is right. However, she doesn’t excuse the bigoted and problematic opinions that he inherits from his parents. Yes, you were raised that way so in that sense it is difficult, but you have a brain and can make up your own mind – upbringing in no way excuses you. Mina calls Michael out on his crap beautifully:
“You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even anti-racism has to be done in a way that makes the majority comfortable? Sorry, Michael, I don’t have time to babysit you through your enlightenment. The first step would be for you to realize that you need to figure it out on your own!”
Can we put it on a signboard somewhere? In really big writing?
It’s not all heavy political issues – there are also the everyday pressures from parents, dodging the mean people at school, and falling in love with people you shouldn’t. I will admit, I could have done without the romance part just because the book was so compelling, but I guess it does add a different dimension of tension.
“Imagine I came to your side of Sydney and started sketching the natives there.”
“What do you mean?’ I say, a little defensively.”
“A group of white women wearing matching Lorna Jane outfits and sipping soy quinoa protein shakes. In watercolour.”
The novel tackles racism, class and privilege, and the subject of refugees with sensitivity and nuance, but doesn’t shy away from making a stand. While the setting may be Australian, it’s resonance is universal. And I think it’s a book that, in this current political climate, is one we need more than ever.
‘I didn’t mean to offend anybody,’ I say.
“People usually don’t,” he replies, still smiling.
ARC received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may differ from final publication.