An adolescent girl is smitten with a boy in her class. But she fears her family would disapprove of her spending time with him. How can she balance her wishes with those of her family? How does she work out what she really feels, when whatever course of action she takes may make someone unhappy?
Victor’s novel is finely told, with an eye for emotional complexity, but what makes it stand out for me is how very relevant it is today in Britain with all this talk of “British values”; the heroine in this story (which made me cry quietly as I reached the final pages) is a Muslim girl, trying to work out some of the issues any teenager might face to do with friendship, love, lust and just who they see themselves as, who they want to be, but she is having to do this at the same time as trying to find a comfortable place between or across two apparently very different cultures.
Ideas of what is right or wrong, what is appropriate or not are thoughtfully explored. There are no easy answers, but there’s lots of respect and understanding, quietly woven into the pages. Whilst it is brilliant to see some publishing diversity (how many other novels for young teenagers can you think of with a Muslim main character?), I firmly believe this is story relevant to any adolescent (and indeed any parent of young people just entering that crazy time of their lives when hormones run riot), whatever their cultural or religious background.
If you enjoyed Anne Booth‘s Girl with a White Dog I’m confident you will love this book, which also explores how life in Britain today is incredibly enriched by the many cultures that find a home here. Pertinent, moving, and at times challenging Head over Heart is a book which makes the world a little better for enabling us to walk in each others shoes and understand our neighbours and ourselves a little more.
Perhaps the last comments of my review should go to a friend of mine: I lent my copy of Head over Heart to a Muslim friend who first warned me that it might take her ages to read the book. Within pretty much 48 hours she was back: “I couldn’t put down the book!” “Her writing is so beautiful.” “I would definitely give my daughter this.”. She also talked about how for her as a parent who didn’t grow up in the UK (but in Pakistan) it was very interesting and helpful to think about the differences between her own childhood and that of her UK born children.
Authors write outside their experience all the time but I still felt it would be interesting to hear what Colette Victor had to say about the experience – she was born in South Africa and now lives in Belgium. Here’s what she had to say to me:
“The magic of being a writer is being able to leave your own predictable and familiar existence to temporarily take up residence inside another person’s skin, a different set of circumstances, a new world all together. If the only viewpoint I was supposed to write from was that of a white, middle-aged South African woman living in Europe, I doubt I’d be doing any writing at all. I certainly wouldn’t have any readers.
So why did I feel I had the authority to write from the perspective of a Muslim teenage girl living in Europe? Well, it all boils down to my job, really. I live and work as a community worker in an ex-mining city in Belgium with a large immigrant population. I’ve worked with many different groups of people over the years – children, senior citizens, ex-convicts, job seekers, resident groups and mothers. Many of the young people and mothers I work with are of either Turkish or Moroccan origin – their families came out here over fifty years ago to work in the mines. I’ve heard countless personal stories, been inside scores of homes and spent hours in the company of young Muslim girls and their mums. I also spent a lot of time interviewing some of these girls to find out their viewpoint on various issues and, I can tell you, they’re as vast and varied as any other group of women.
One of the reasons I set out to write Head over heart was because there are so many misconceptions surrounding the headscarf. People often see it as a symbol of female oppression. Through my work I’ve met many proud, strong women who choose to wear a headscarf as a symbol of their identity, despite the opinions for or against it. I know married women, widows, single mums and emancipated university students who wear a headscarf because that’s who they are and not because there’s a man standing in the wings demanding it. On the flip side, I also know many women who would seem Westernised and wear Western clothing but live an existence of subjugation and submissiveness behind the scenes. I know Belgian women, Christian women and atheists – some lead proud, strong lives, some live in fear and submission. Ultimately it’s about looking further than cultural accessories and seeing the person underneath.
My daughter, Stella, who’s about the same age as Zeyneb, had a Muslim best friend for all her nursery and primary school years. The two girls were always together, doing homework, dressing up, sleeping over at each other’s houses. As my daughter’s friend got older and her body started changing, she often expressed concern about the fact that soon her carefree childhood would be behind her and she’d have to make the choice of wearing a headscarf or not. This is what got me thinking about all the cultural pressures at play in making such a decision and this is what I explored through Zeyneb’s eyes in Head over heart.”
My thanks go to Colette Victor for her thoughts on this. And thank you – this has been a long post, but I really think this book deserves the time and space I’ve devoted to it dtoday for it is an excellent, thoughtful, and highly relevant début.