Towelhead: A novel

10Apr09

I started Alicia Erian’s novel Towelhead on Sunday morning and finished it on Tuesday afternoon.  This might be a decent indicator of how much I liked this book, and how incredibly powerful it was.  I have had a hard time figuring out what to say about this book at least to start off with.  I am excited to tell people about it, but I don’t know how to express how great it was, because it is so complex and layered and really, at heart, quite tragic.  I’ll start with the plot.

Towelhead is the story of Jasira, a 13-year old girl of Irish and Lebanese parents.  Jasira is sent to live with her father, Rifat, when her mother discovers her boyfriend shaving Jasira’s bikini line.  Her mother, selfish to maintain her realtionship with her boyfriend “disposes” of Jasira, advising Jasira that she will learn to be a better, more proper young woman if she stays with her father.  Jasira, unaware of anything she’s done wrong, moves to Texas to live with her father.

Towelhead by Alicia Erian

Towelhead by Alicia Erian

Jasira’s transition to her life in Texas is not an easy one.  The book is set at the near-onset of the Gulf War, and so Jasira and her father are targets of a lot of prejudice.  Jasira also deals with her own pubescent changes in a home where anything involving the body is extremely private and not open for discussion.  Jasira clearly longs for someone to talk to about her changing body, her period, and the desires she has when looking at her neighbor’s Playboy magazine.

Because Jasira never is given the language or the opportunity to discuss what is going on in her mind and body, she has no idea how to react when she becomes an object of lust for her next-door neighbor, Mr. Vuoso.  Jasira focuses mostly on the attention that she receives from him.  When he steps over the line and sexually abuses her, she is, at once enraged and enamored by his actions.  It becomes clear that Jasira overlooks the uncomfortable nature of this incident because she feels cared for and desired.  This becomes a common thread throughout the book, as Jasira spends much of her time searching for people who will give her positive praise and attention, even if it means compromising her body. 

Throughout the novel, Jasira gains her voice and builds herself up with allies who help her realize her worth.  These friendships are extraordinarily profound and only further illustrate just how desperate Jasira’s situation is, and how her parents have no idea what she has gone through. 

Working in the field that I do (I work for a mentoring organization in Boston), I kept thinking that Jasira and girls like her obviously still do exist–we see them every day.  The situation that Erian illustrates is not one that is unfamiliar, especially not today.  Towelhead represents a lot of dangerous situations that some girls find themselves in, but it also gives a feeling of hope for those in that circumstance.  While the book was INCREDIBLY graphic and full of uncomfortable imagery (no detail is spared when discussing the physical and sexual abuse that Jasira encounters in several of her relationships), it’s absolutely a page-turner because I kept wanting Jasira to better herself and develop deeper relationships so tha the truth WOULD come out. 

I don’t think I did a very good job of doing this novel justice, but I do have to say that it’s one of the best that I have read in a long time–probably the best since I read Those Who Save Us.  I think Towelhead is a fairly accurate portrayal of the confusing nature of adolescence and sexuality and how powerful a little knowledge can be when used correctly.  Read it….read it now!

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