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Silence Is a Sense

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Another great read. I love reading stories by Arab/middle eastern authors - it really makes me feel seen, and to see Arab writers be so successful in North America is inspiring. This was a great book that I will recommend to so many friends and family.
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I received an ARC of this novel from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

A young woman who escaped Syria lives in England and watches her neighbors.  She lives in fear until she finds her voice and overcomes her panic.
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Adult literature. As the narrator in this story watches, listens, and describes her neighbors, she also examines her own life (past and present) in comparison but struggles coming to terms with herself as symbolized by the loss of her voice. (Doctors have determined her muteness to be self selected.). An interesting examination of self through the story of others.
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Wow. Just, wow.  Silence Is A Sense by Layla Alammar is an excellent story. It has heart, grit, and so many layers that showcase the hot button issues of identity, isolation, politics, religion, and xenophobia (just to name a few).  You can't help but turn the first page and find yourself settling down to read for the long haul - this book just hooks you and doesn't let go. It's an emotional and thought-provoking reading experience that you won't forget. I just LOVED this book so hard. 

A young woman has fled her country for safety. She's left Aleppo, Syria for the United Kingdom.  She sits in her apartment people watching and writing columns about the refugee experience.  She's traumatized from what she witnessed and experienced in Aleppo that she's become mute. Her editor wants more personal details to hook their readers. The young woman finds herself becoming more and more involved with her new community. And then something horrible happens at the nearby mosque.  Will she continue to remain silent or will she finally stand up? 

Talk about a powerful story. Alammar has written a beautiful novel that will open your eyes and fill you with up with questions, ideas, and so much more. The writing is top notch and the characters are fantastic. This is one story you won't forget. 

I would happily recommend Silence Is A Sense to anyone looking for their next great read - you will LOVE this book!
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Silence Is A Sense tells the story of a Syrian woman in London who has lost the ability to speak after a traumatic experience. Instead of speaking, she writes prolifically about the immigrant experience and observes the other occupants of her apartment complex. As the story goes on, she gets more involved in her community and is forced to confront why exactly she is without her voice.

The writing is beautiful and visceral—it really captures every character and makes them come to life. There is also great world building, both within this London apartment complex and in flashbacks to Syria, when the main character was with her friends and family.

The main character writes really great articles about the immigrant experience, examined through a lens of political and cultural analysis. Excerpts are included in the book and they are so smart, sharp and thoughtful. Yet her daring opinions and visceral clarity on subjects disappears when she is faced with real life situations where these ideas should be put into action. I found this to be quite jarring and out-of-character.

There are moments where she begins to question a friend’s harmful activism, but as the book goes on, it’s as if her opinions disappear and she goes along with everything. She develops a strong friendship with this person who has put her in multiple harmful situations and who uses her as a vessel to promote his own vague activism. This situation, combined with another parasitic relationship in the book, felt very white-savior-y to me. Eek!

Overall, I think this novel is underdeveloped. There are some good moments where characters come to a new understanding of each other and move in a positive direction, but when writing about such important and weighty topics, that just isn’t enough. While the main character is freed from her fear in the end, she stops using her voice to examine the world around her. Why?! AlAmmar’s writing is quite good, though, so I’d be curious to see what she writes next.
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When someone doesn’t speak, when they cut the rest of us off from their opinions and histories, they still can’t avoid being talked about. The narrator of Layla AlAmmar’s thoughtful novel Silence is a Sense, lives a silenced life in a housing estate in London sometime after civil war broke out in Syria. She won’t tell anyone her name. She certainly won’t tell anyone about the terrible things that happened to her and her family between Syria and England. And yet, this book is loud with all of the things the narrator refuses to say. It’s also loud with all the assumptions that people make about the narrator, about Muslims, about things happening in other countries, and about other people’s behavior. I was completely gripped by this book.

These days, the narrator makes a bit of money writing for online publications and lives on funds she receives as an asylum seeker. She has a flat in a cluster of buildings where everyone can see and hear everyone else’s business. The narrator is no exception. She constantly observes her neighbors, who she names for one of their habits. There’s the Juicer, who has an obsessive exercise routine and diet. There’s the No-Lights Man, who likes to roam around his apartment in the dark unless he has company. The Russians (who might not actually be Russian) shout at each other and bang pots and pans on the other side of the shared wall. I was strongly reminded of the very beginning of Rear Window, although this book never turns into a mystery.

The narrator’s sharp observations of her current circumstances are punctuated with memories of things she very much does not want to recall, so we only learn about her flight from Syria in snatches. Her editor is always asking for those memories. Josie publishes the narrator’s essays about the treatment of refugees and immigrants, civil war, and the like, but she really wants human interest pieces from events in the narrator’s life. I can understand why the narrator resists. First, writing would mean remembering. The narrator copes with past trauma by not thinking about it. Second, what would publishing her memories really achieve? Would it change international policy? Would it change her neighbor’s minds? Or would it be something a reader downs with their cup of coffee in the morning and then moves on from?

The only thing that draws the narrator out of her cocoon is a growing conflict brewing at a nearby mosque. The imam is doing his best to create a good relationship with the community. Most people are fine with this, but there’s a loud group of racists who are very much Not Happy. The escalation of angry words and fists brings the narrator’s memories to the surface. At the same time, she bumps into No-Lights Man (who knows she has been observing him and everyone else in the housing estate). He rescues her more than once when the memories threaten to swamp the narrator. He also wants the narrator’s memories—this time to help inspire people to fight for refugees and tolerance for immigrants. The last third or so of Silence is a Sense shows the narrator struggling with the choice to speak again or remain silent.

Silence is a Sense is a fresh, original take on the refugee experience. It may be ironic for a book about a character who refuses to speak, but this book has so much to say about everything. I loved it, even though it was full of hard things. The narrator’s silent voice asked questions I’d never thought of before, shared perspectives I didn’t even know existed, and did it all with intelligence and a dash of snark. I can’t say enough good things about Silence is a Sense.
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What a heartbreakingly beautiful story! This covers so many tough topics without feeling like an after school special. I learned so much about cultures other than my own and felt all the feels. This is a slower burn and intellectual, but absolutely worth the read!
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Amazing.  I loved the lyrical wrting style of this and the voice of the main character.  The first few chapters of this were perfect.  It gave such a rear window vibe and it was so interesting to learn about the main character simply from how she observed her neighbors.  I could honestly have had the whole book just been her observations of the neighbors and spying.  But, the rest of the story of her life experience and online articles was thought provoking, well-written, and obviously relevant.  Highly recommend and I will read everything this author does!
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A Muslim Syrian refugee, who remains nameless for the majority of the book, is now living in the UK. She silently observes her neighbors out her apartment's window and slowly begins to understand the world around her.

This book tackles PTSD as our narrator reflects on immigrating to the UK as a single woman. Her experiences have forced her into silence. I also appreicated the other themes explored throughout the story: racism, home, belonging, and memory.

This is a powerful novel and I'm glad I had the chance to read it!
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WOW! Just WOW! This stunningly emotional story has completely stolen my heart! I felt Layla Al Ammar’s beautifully evocative words deep in my soul. A simple story with a powerful message.

   The story is told by a nameless narrator. A Muslim Syrian refugee who is now living in the UK. Our narrator lives her life on the edges never speaking. Out of sight meticulously observing her neighbors. She is also writing an article for a local newspaper about being a Muslim living in the UK under the pen name Voiceless. As the story progresses our narrator learns that she is seen much more than she realizes. As she becomes more comfortable and invested in the community we learn more and more about our voiceless narrator. I know my words have not done this book justice. There were just so many layers to the story and so many profound moments. A beautiful, unique, and thought-provoking story. I seriously cannot recommend this book strongly enough!

*** Big thank you to Algonquin for my gifted copy of this book. All opinions are my own. ***
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I was invited by Algonquin to review this book as part of a blog tour. Thank you to the publisher, the author and NetGalley.  I believe it falls into the genre of literary fiction, which I’m not very familiar with but can appreciate from time to time. The main character is a young woman from Syria living in the UK as a refugee, and how she deals with her new life, memories from her home country and her journey to escape it. She has obviously endured trauma that has led her to develop mutism, which of course hinders her communication with the people she encounters daily. She writes articles for an online magazine about her experiences. It’s a harsh novel, but I have been drawn to it and I think it will take me less time than I’d anticipated to finish it.
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In Layla Al Ammar’s new novel, Rana is a young Syrian refugee writing under the pseudonym “The Voiceless” for a British magazine. After arriving in the UK she has become mute and struggles to write her story—and those of other refugees—in her unnamed small English city apartment tower surrounded by stacks of books. As she ventures outside her apartment, she learns that “free countries” like the UK are often free in name only. For more of my review, check out
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The narrator that we don’t know her name tells her story of being a refugee going from war Syria to England, telling her stories from her families trip to freedom.
Living in an apartment building seeing all of her neighborhood lives and witnessing that is hard for her to keep quiet.  This was a lovely story from the view of a new refugee.
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As a Syrian refugee now living in Englan, The Voiceless observes the world around her and writes about it. She can see the neighbors in other flats and has names for them all. When the violence that took her from her home erupts in her new neighborhood, she has to make a stand somehow. But how can she do that without a voice?

Thank you to Algonquin and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this book.

I have no idea what it would be like to be forced from your home because of violence. Having to travel by any means necessary, go through unthinkable trials, just to land in a place where you don't know anyone. You don't know what has become of your family and friends and really don't have a way to find out. Maybe this is why she became voiceless.
“A fierce novel… Layla AlAmmar has skillfully woven a narrative of memory and grief with an illuminating social critique of the position of asylum seekers within contemporary British society. It is daring and devastating.” —Fiona Mozley, Booker-finalist author of Elmet and Hot Stew 
 “Kuwaiti writer AlAmmar explores trauma and voicelessness through fragmented narrative form and a mute protagonist who has survived the war in Syria and is now living in isolation in the UK.” —The Millions 
 “With a powerful prose, AlAmmar pens a story about a young woman traumatized into muteness after a dangerous trip from war-torn Syria to the UK.” — Palm Beach Daily News 
 “Evocative… The conflicts over immigration and racism are brilliantly distilled, and they dovetail seamlessly with the narrator’s lyrical, increasingly defiant narration. Patient readers will find much to ponder.” —Publishers Weekly
Even leaving Syria didn't keep her from the violence against her people. Others want her to write more about these experiences, but she doesn't want to reveal who she really is. While this story takes place in England, this could have taken place anywhere in the world. With the news in our country at this time about Asian-Americans being targeted for violence. Whenever something bad happens in our country, those who are associated with the country, faith, race, that the incident stemmed from, tend to get all of the rage against the injustice. Even though it has nothing to do with them.

Here is a quote from this book, that I think is important for us all(taken from uncorrected proof): "We are one being. All of us. You are not made any differently than I am. And these religions of ours are nothing but languages. You speak English, I speak Punjabi, he speaks French, she speaks Japanese or Chinese, but we all say the same thing. These religions, they are words, only a language. Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, we are all saying the same thing. Your humanity and my humanity are the same. We are of one being, one value. All of us equal, all of us the same."
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A powerful exploration of the refugee experience through the eyes of a young Syrian woman. In an unnamed British city, she sits in her apartment, observing her neighbors. She never ventures far, sometimes going as far as a used bookstore, and she never speaks. Some of her neighbors believe she’s deaf, an error she does not correct. Trauma has left her unable to speak, but she finds her voice through writing, from scribbling in the margins of her growing collection of books to writing an anonymous magazine column.

Through this unnamed narrator, AlAmmar explores the weight of trauma and power of community. The narrative moves through her present day observations, her memories of home and of the grueling journey to the tentative safety of her new country. Deeply moving although sometimes difficult to follow as the chapters shift from past to present. Looking forward to more from this author.
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All different neighbors surround the main character. They are so different. Some of her neighbors are prejudice, another is promiscuous, another chooses to live in the dark and so on. The events that constantly occur around the main character intrigue her and interest her. While the main character finds her neighbors fascinating, other events will occur that will rattle her world and make her see things differently. Will she become involved or will she decide to continue to be an observer from the sidelines? 
I feel that many people can learn from this powerful novel. There is lust, racism, intrigue, etc. This book can teach people to understand people of different ethnic groups  and religions. Also, people can learn about the hardships of being a minority that had to move from their homeland to a country so foreign from their own. 

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Layla AlAmmar’s new book, Silence is a Sense, is a profound and riveting story that dives into the life of a Syrian refugee who has lost everything, including her will to speak.

Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.

AlAmmar sets up the story as a dual timeline. In the present we follow our unnamed 24 year old heroine as she navigates her new life in England where she watches the other occupants in the apartments surrounding her, and as she ventures out into the public world trying to expand her sense of safety in her new world. In the past we go back to her home in Syria and her somewhat happy life. From there we follow her journey to escape the war torn country and everything she had to do and endure to get out alive. However, we do not follow her escape from beginning, to middle, to end. Rather we bounce around through that time period in a haphazard fashion. She states that, “The structure of narrative has collapsed; imprecise in my own mind, with jagged pieces it takes so much to screw together.” We view her past through her memories, flashbacks and dreams. This may seem confusing to some readers, but makes complete and logical sense. Working through one’s past and grief rarely happens in a linear fashion.

I really don’t know how to use enough words to give a voice to how beautifully written this story was. AlAmmar has an evocative way with words and the ability to put me in the mind of our heroine/narrator from the first sentence. Her writing also affected me deeply as she took on the complex issues of immigration and melds them into the story with ease and clarity.

I loved how our narrator still had her strong and independent voice even though she could not bring herself to speak verbally and used her writing skills to bring a “voice” to her life and experiences. I found it interesting that her pen name was “The Voiceless” as she still had a strong voice in her publications, her views of the world around her, and how she became part of the community around her in England. This is the quality that instantly had me hooked to this story as she tells the sheer and utter rawness of her story.

This is and intense, emotionally driven, thought provoking, and heartbreaking story that will render you speechless. I highly recommend Silence is a Sense as we all need to understand what it means to be a refugee.

No one is truly voiceless, either they silence you, or you silence yourself.

Thank you Algonquin books for the gifted arc of this moving story in exchange for my honest review.
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I've sat with my thoughts and feelings about Silence Is a Sense for two days now in the hopes that I'd be able to better formulate a review and I'm honestly no closer to being able to do that than when I first finished reading the book. I know that whatever I write about it won't do the book justice but I'm going to try to find my words (sorry if this is a hot mess)!

It's been a while since a book has so swiftly taken me by surprise. I knew this was going to be a tough read from the moment I saw the synopsis, and I wasn't wrong, but I also wasn't expecting it to so suddenly strangle my emotions the way it did and I attribute that to AlAmmar's quietly engrossing and atmospheric writing. It's so linguistically rich and in turns easy and difficult to get lost in but it perfectly captures the fragile state of our narrator's mind and allows us to completely immerse ourselves in her existence.

When we meet our unnamed narrator, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, she's living deep in solitary silence and caged by her mind full of trauma and fear. She is a keen and quiet observer of her neighbours lives through the windows of their flats, and she wonders at the things they do, what they've experienced that led them to where they are today, and she marvels at the freedom and feelings of safety that they exhibit. She writes articles for an online magazine as 'The Voiceless' where she shares her thoughts on the politics of war, religious extremism, media and consumerism, nationalism, racism, xenophobia and bigotry. Unsurprisingly, there's a great deal of social commentary in what our protagonist writes and thinks, and though they're not foreign ideas or concepts they are still deeply thought-provoking. It makes you consider how things like war and refugees and their trauma and experiences are utilised by the media. Through her observations and her thoughts, we glean what it was like to live in a country where voicing dissent or standing out in socially/culturally unacceptable ways can lead to disappearance or death; where 'big brother' is really real. We get a small glimpse of what refugees have to endure--the trauma, humiliation, starvation, fear--when they decide to leave everything behind, to put their lives in other peoples hands, in order to start a life somewhere foreign without ever knowing whether 'home' will even exist to return to one day.

The story is presented in a mix of mediums and is told through present-day observations, vivid dreams and imaginative conjurings, flashbacks and memories. I have to admit to feeling a great deal of confusion at the start as I tried working out what was real and what wasn't, but in retrospect, I realise AlAmmar did a fantastic job in capturing the progression of our narrator's mental journey as she works through her trauma and the stages of her grief. The beginning is heavy with confusion, and uncontrollable flashbacks and escaped memories, but they lessen as she slowly releases herself from her mental cage(s) and immerses herself in the community. Her (internal) voice, which starts off numb and timid, also goes through an 'awakening' as she sheds that numbness to experience anger and frustration, to acknowledging tentatively grasping the small strands of hope in sight. Oh, hope, what a wonderful healing thing. All of it was just so brilliantly written!

March 15 marked ten years since the start of the Syrian war. Millions of people have been become refugees and internally displaced and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. These are numbers that are so LARGE that it's impossible to comprehend. What is it like for people to literally watch their nation crumble right before their eyes? To have to choose between leaving and living or staying and (very possibly) dying? As stated in an interview, through this book, AlAmmar set out to 'dispel the abstractions' of the literal crumbling of a nation and to ground the magnitude of such devastation and loss through a personal narrative and she does an INCREDIBLE job. Poetically written, thought-provoking and emotionally explosive, this isn't an easy read at all but my gosh is it absolutely worth it! This will undoubtedly be one of the most impactful books I read in 2021 and I highly recommend it.
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3.5 Stars!

This was incredibly unexpected! I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t quite what this book turned out to be. I think I expected sort of a “finding herself”/ “finding  narrative of a traumatized Syrian refugee overcoming being lost in a web of PTSD-induced silence, but this was instead a rather intellectual, linguistically-astute work of literary fiction-cum- social commentary and I liked it. Based on the title, as you’d expect, it’s a very quiet and introspective sort of book with strong themes around religious extremism, revolution, racism, nationalism and bigotry.

The premise is that the unnamed (till the very end) narrator is a Syrian refugee in England, a part-time student, part-time freelancer about her experiences for a magazine, who is still dealing with the extreme trauma of being a single woman fleeing Syria on her own late in the Civil War and making her way across all of Europe to England. Suffering a psychotic break as a result of her experience, she finds solace and strength in silence, not speaking for years till her neighbours believe her to be deaf and unable to speak. In her silence, she develops her own self-awareness as well as an understanding of others, especially her neighbors in the apartment blocks around hers who she spies on all day, becoming embroiled against her will, in the tragedies of their lives.
This was written by an author who obviously loves literature and it is clear she’s writing what she knows because her narrator is also a bibliophile. There are numerous references to  renowned middle eastern writers and their quotes are sprinkled throughout this book, and the narrator’s analysis of these quotes make them appear like her own well-worn, thoroughly digested thoughts about home, belonging, memory and identity. But she is also well-versed in Western classics revealing a kinship with the melancholy and human frailty they reveal versus the “silence” in her own literary heritage. I don’t know enough about middle eastern writers or the melancholy white Western classics writers she prefers to comment either way but I did like the exploration of this theme.

Because the protagonist/narrator observes rather than speaks and lives so much in her head, she has a self-awareness AND an almost non-judgmental understanding of others. On bigotry, she recognizes that irrational fear of loss and lessening rather than a lack of rational knowledge and facts is the key. I think the narrator is so lost to herself from everything she’s experienced that she recognizes herself almost as a chameleon, someone whose experiences and trauma have ripped away their identity, someone who has been called so many names that she can’t help be simultaneously all and none of them. But what we do know is that physically she can be “whatever you see. Arab. University student. Writer. Fatty. Muslim. Whore.”

The narrator is filled with clever and smart but somewhat unpopular opinions that many people will be offended by. For example, she has really interesting and different ideas about blaming terrorist attacks on Islam and questioning whether people’s personal definitions and interpretations of Islam were invalid because a fellow Muslim didn’t think they were right. Great points were made but not sure that I agree from a religious perspective that someone defines their religion rather than a holy book or the tenets after religion is more than a spiritual identity. But I also get her meaning and she does discuss how religion-justified terrorism is a cycle that is supported by interpretation rather than the religion itself. She also analyzes the futility of democracy and how it is impossible without an informed electorate and a free, fair and responsible press doing that informing, none of which exists in any part of the world where bias is the order of the day. It’s very interesting and she is very good at these thought pieces which exist throughout the book.

Silence is definitely a theme. Not only in the narrator’s presentation of herself and her unwillingness or inability to speak, but also it is a philosophical question to her, a being to explore, a memory, a punishment, a culture, a literary heritage. More than a theme, in this book, very much on the nose, silence might even be a character.

There’s a lot of sex and sexuality and talk about bodies in this book but it’s not at all a sexy book. Sex isn’t pleasure, it’s more pain and forgetting and loss of self, but also a place of bitter memories of a means to an end, a loss of control, a release even if not a pleasurable one. It’s as though sex in this book is a proxy for human contact for dealing with a silence that is oppressive and that needs to be released.

I’m not sure what to feel about this book. I didn’t not like it. But I also didn’t love it. I liked that it told a different story gave a different perspective than the refugee narratives that journalists typically take on. This is a pretty emotionally devastating book and I liked the way emotion was captured in this book, being simultaneously explosive and repressed, buried under silence, struggling to stay contained so that the heroine doesn’t break even further. I do feel like this felt like separate ideas in one book. The plot of the snooping, always watching neighbour and the narrator’s increasing involvement in the community was somewhat slowed down by the tangents and opinion articles the narrator would go on, which didn’t have much to do with her increasing interactions with others. But again arguably, this wasn’t a book where the author wanted to have an A to B narrative telling that sort of story. This is more a snapshot-style book of flashbacks, ideas and thoughts and ways of looking at society. The “should I tell, shouldn’t I tell” conflict of the book was to me weak and underdeveloped so that when it escalated at the end, it didn’t feel like the escalation matched the amount of attention that had been given to that conflict. And I felt that way about the plot in general. I liked the broad strokes of the plot, but I think the editorial bits kind of distracted and took away from the plot development. I would have liked the narrator to have a bit more to do with her neighbours and to develop that tension and conflict a bit more. As it was, to me this book was strongest whenever she was giving her opinions and writing her articles and think pieces or doing her linguist thing with words. I enjoyed this book for those novel ideas and the beautiful way everything was written more than I enjoyed it as a work of fiction. I am glad I read this though. The gorgeous writing and use of language had me highlighting half the book and taking notes so that I can think even more deeply about and discuss the narrator’s idea.

Many thanks to Algonquin Books for an advance review copy!
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Thank you Netgalley, Algonquin Books and Layla AlAmmar for free e-ARC of Silence Is A Sense in return of my honest review. 

The reader meets a girl, a Syrian refugee who is no longer able to talk due to trauma. She uses her voice only to tell written stories in an online magazine under Voiceless- alias. She meets some people in the neighborhood and slowly gets used to a new way of life. Flashbacks to past and her articles in the magazine give the reader a glimpse into her previous life.

Not an easy book to read but so worth it! Horrible stories of her survival during her trip from Syria to England, ignorance by some people she encountered, hate crime and vivid descriptions of war are not the topics one might find comfortable. However, as year of 2020 and summer events showed me that life is not comfortable. Also uncomfortable literature is a pretty comfortable way to educate yourself on some important issues.
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