A review of Ahmed Salah al-Mahdi’s Reem: Into the Unknown:
By Layla Azmi Goushey
Reem: Into the Unknown by Ahmed Salah Al-Mahdi is a suspenseful coming-of-age novel that readers of all ages will enjoy. Al-Mahdi recently translated the Arabic version of his novel into English, and the nuances of the story benefit from the author’s careful attention to detail. Readers will enjoy the mystery and excitement of this engaging story.
The story, set in Cairo, Egypt, revolves around a mysterious cat with a strong, cranky personality. The main character, Saif, is a young adult who lives alone. He prefers to keep to himself, but his friends worry that he spends too much time alone so he considers buying a pet to keep him company. He visits a pet shop and discovers a cat who is kept in a covered cage because it is irritable and hisses at customers. Saif thinks that the cat is lonely like him. He decides to purchase the cat, which ultimately leads him to meet the other two main characters, Osama and Reem.
Osama is a 12-year old boy who lives with his mother. His father died many years prior to the story. Osama does not like the bustle of the market where his mother is a vendor, so he seeks the quiet of the shore of the nearby river. It is there that he meets Reem, who is his same age. Reem lives with her grandmother, and she misses her parents who died in an accident. However, there is more to Reem than readers first realize, and the story brings all three characters together with the cat to solve the mystery.
Young adult fiction is normally targeted to the 12-18 age range. One important requisite of this genre is that the characters are realistically drawn. The most compelling aspect of Reem: Into the Unknown is how the author depicts the loneliness, confusion, and disconnected feeling some teens and young adults experience. The younger characters, Osama and Reem, struggle to find their purpose as they separate from parental identities to find their own. For example, at one point in the story, Reem realizes that she is not wanted by one side of her family and that is why she must live with her grandmother. Broken families and unfair or frightening parental expectations: these are familiar experiences to some young people.
However, as the story progresses, readers discover how to find hope from challenging experiences. The characters begin to minimize their loneliness by taking small steps out of their comfort zones. Each person’s decision to reach out to someone else, whether reaching out to a person or a cat, open up doors to new friends and a new adventure.
Friendship is another key theme in the novel. While older readers might wonder if Osama and Reem are falling in love, the truth is more innocent. From an adolescent readers’ perspective, friendship is about sharing thoughts and feelings. Osama and Reem connect because they help each other break through the walls of loneliness caused by parental loss.
One of my favorite, but subtle, aspects of the novel shows the characters reading and benefiting from what they read. Saif often reads a novel before bed, and Reem reads her grandmother’s books to learn important information about her family history. This information ultimately helps her learn more about herself and her relationship with her mother and grandmother.
Reem: Into the Unknown is a story that is fun to read. While the mysterious questions about the cat are answered by the end of the tale, we also see the characters in a new light. What will happen next in the lives of Saif, Osama, and Reem? I look forward to reading a sequel to this engaging story.
You can read a short sample from the book at ArabKidLitNow!
Layla Azmi Goushey is an Associate Professor of English at a community college in Missouri. She completed her M.F. A in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri – St. Louis where she is a doctoral candidate in Adult Education, Teaching and Learning Processes. She is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her research interests include Arab and Arab-Diasporic literature and culture, philosophies of teaching and learning, and Islamic philosophy.