Reviewed by Jody Uy
By Tahereh Mafi
368 pp. Dutton Children’s Books.
It has been a long time since I’ve read a book meant for younger audiences. As you grow older, sometimes the world of magic and going off on adventures can be tiring to slough through. There’s the usual tragic protagonist with the duty to save the world and fight against the Evil Villain of Doom and Destruction. The hero usually comes boxed with a special ability that allows him/her to make it through all the trials and you just know he/she will save the day to ensure a happily ever after (and a sequel or two). This is the basic formula for many novels aimed at young readers, but in recent years, the landscape of children’s and young adult literature appears to have shifted. Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi is one such novel that is weaved from a different thread from the rest. To be completely honest, the book kept me hooked because I had no idea how everything would turn out in the end. The unique storytelling and honest emotions captured by the author greatly surprised me and added layers of complexity to the entire tale.
Whichwood tells the story of Laylee, the sole mordeshoor in her village, whose task is to perform ancient rituals of cleaning that prepare the dead for the afterlife. She is a character with many troubles and responsibilities, but doesn’t have the trademark positivity of typical heroes. She is tired and deeply frustrated with her own situation and we gain a deep sense of her troubled life and unstable condition with every page. The author takes pains to describe not just the physical appearance of this magical world, but the feelings that course through the veins of each and every character. Tahereh Mafi manages to show through carefully and powerfully chosen words the intensity of all these emotions and how they manifest in each person instead of simply telling us. Each emotion is depicted beyond simple words like mad, sad, and happy, and it is important to note how this is a great way to make teens and kids understand and better express their own feelings. Not much dialogue takes place in Whichwood, allowing for focus to be centered on each character’s thoughts and emotions. While a book stuck in the mind tends to drag readers along, Whichwood’s fast pace keeps readers turning pages just as quickly.
Apart from the well-paced and emotionally-compelling story, Whichwood also deals with an interesting problem that shifts the focus from the typical Good VS Evil battle to one that is more representative of our own struggles as human beings. First, we have Laylee who struggles against her own demons. She is closed off, easily angered, silent, and unreasonable in her treatment of other people, even those who wish to help her. However, as the novel progresses, we see how she shifts ever so slightly as she comes to terms with her own circumstances, allowing her wounds to fester painfully, but also eventually scab and heal completely. Second, we are made to see how the expectations and misconceptions of the larger society can create terrifying ripples as a small problem in the beginning of the novel amasses as the story moves along. More than an evil mastermind planning for world domination, it is often the mistaken perceptions and the accusatory finger pointing of society that bring people down. Tahereh Mafi emphasizes this point clearly in the novel and the angry shouts of the villagers echo loudly and painfully against our protagonist, leaving a deep impression on the reader.
With its true to life problems and honest depictions of emotion, Whichwood unravels and wraps up its story rather nicely in bones, blood, and graves. While not a topic that parents or teachers find easy to discuss, the book depicts death in a way that is dignified and as something inevitable. Characters do pass away, but there is much life to be found in death. Laylee herself lives to help spirits pass on quietly to the afterlife, and the friends she meets along the way come to appreciate the gruesome ritual she must enact for the souls to sleep soundly. Whichwood provides a window into a frosty, boney, and magical world with characters that feel, act, and struggle in the same way that we do in our everyday lives. Young readers will find their hearts aching and pulsing with raw feeling, and get their minds roiling with thoughts on the self and society.
Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi will be available soon at Fully Booked. To reserve a copy in advance, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jody is currently an undergraduate student taking up Education and is discovering everyday the greatest bits about reading and learning that fuel our thinking. When she’s not drowning in readings for class, she drowns herself in music, books, and the wonders of the Internet. You can find her on Instagram @ohfishness.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]