Danika reviews The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

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I had high expectations for this book. I’ve heard really good things about Shamim Sarif, and one of my favourite lesbian movies is I Can’t Think Straight, which is based on Sarif’s novel of the same name, and is directed by her as well. I was actually so confident about this that I saved it until I really wanted a book I was sure to like. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to that for me.

I was really intrigued by the setting for this novel. I haven’t read many books that take place in South Africa during apartheid, and I definitely have never heard a story involving an Indian community in South Africa. Although this was interesting, it ended up being distracting to me. Despite the setting, apartheid is really only a subplot in the novel. Although the main characters do experience racism, they don’t face the sort of brutal treatment that black Africans in the same community do, and those characters are minor and seem undeveloped. It seems odd to set the story during this time period if you’re not going to really deal with it in a major way.

On top of that, [spoilers, highlight to read] one of the black African characters that we do get is Amina’s biological grandfather, who was a servant? worker? who raped Amina’s grandmother. Why you would include a story about a poor black man raping a more well-off non-black woman in a story that should be about antiracism is beyond me. [end spoilers] This seemed completely unnecessary, especially since there are only really two other black characters in the novel, and only one who gets a minor subplot (Jacob, Amina’s business partner).

Add to that the mentally ill character who seems to exist only to show how hard done by Miriam is for having to take care of her [spoilers] (except when she exists as a plot device to unintentionally betray her sister-in-law) [end spoilers] and I was really pulled out of the story. The (main) characters were strong, and I liked the dynamic they had, but the plot and romance were not strong enough to draw me back into the story. Finally, the weak conclusion made me a little regretful I had picked it up at all.

I will probably still give I Can’t Think Straight a try, because I loved the movie so much, and because The World Unseen is Sarif’s first novel, so hopefully her writing just improves from here.

Hannah reviews I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

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First, let us acknowledge Shamim Sharif not only for her book, but for her book’s title. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m still amused by I Can’t Think Straight.

I Can’t Think Straight is written through the alternating viewpoints of British-Indian Leyla, an aspiring writer, and Palestinian Tala, four-times-engaged and quickly becoming a headache for her traditional Middle Eastern family.

Sharif’s book was made into a movie, and it’s easy to imagine why: the dialogue and characters contain certain cinematic elements – perhaps mostly due to their comedic moments. The ‘cast’ of the book is likewise cinematically large, with Tala especially having siblings and in-laws ad infinitum, but even the supporting characters are well-developed. I never had difficultly remembering who was whom, which is a general sign of good writing.

This book deals a lot with cultural differences and how those differences affect people’s views of Tala and Leyla’s love. Sharif clearly understands both cultures she writes about, as well as how Western and Eastern values clash. From clothes to attitudes regarding finances to casual Anti-Semitism, Sharif’s characters bring the reader into a complicated and diverse world. Enough is explained, in necessary circumstances, for a clueless reader to never be lost.

Generally I’m wary of books in which lesbian women need to accept themselves and come to terms for their sexual orientations. However, this book is always optimistic, never depressing, and Sharif can throw comedy even into the more dramatic moments. It’s a quick, easy read that left me smiling.

TB reviews I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

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Shamim Sarif’s novel, I CAN’T THINK STRAIGHT, focuses on several issues that are close to my heart: love, friendship, and families. Many of us can relate to these topics on some level, even if the main characters come from different backgrounds.

Tala is a Palestinian who lives in London. In the opening pages, she’s preparing for her engagement party. This isn’t the first time she’s been engaged and Tala’s mother and sister fear that she might blow this opportunity again. Tala loves the man she’s engaged to, but feels like something is missing.

Leyla, a British Indian woman, is also involved in a relationship with a man. Again, she likes him, but doesn’t feel the spark.

When Tala and Leyla meet there’s an attraction, but neither can put their finger on it right away.
This is a sweet romance between two women torn between their feelings and family obligations. While their mothers love them, at least I think they do, they also have traditional values. For them, getting married to a man is a fact of life. Both of the mothers care a lot about their traditional values and what others will think. And they want their daughters taken care of. They worry like most mothers.

The daughters are free-spirited. They just have to realize it. And act on it. It’s one thing to admit to yourself the truth. It’s a whole new ballgame to proclaim it to the world.

This novel takes the reader on an emotional roller-coaster. There’s happiness, love, pain, and loss. What shines through is the beauty of relationships, whether they are romantic, family, or friendly.

Rachel reviews I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

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Different cultures are explored, and two different women come together in I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif, the director of the movie of the same name. Going back and forth from Amman, Jordan to London, the lives of two young women trying to make their mark on the world entwine in a funny, poetic, and tender story.

In Jordan, Tala, a Christian Arab woman from a wealthy and prominent family is due to be married to her fourth fiancée. An independent person, Tala is struggling to run her own business, and at the same time be happy with her husband-to-be, Hani. But she has a secret; a reason she broke off her first three engagements and is trying to ignore completely: she is attracted to women.

In England, shy Leyla, an Indian Muslim and a budding writer, is dating Tala’s best friend but is beginning to come to terms with her lesbian identity…though her boyfriend and family know nothing of it. When her boyfriend Ali invites Leyla to visit Tala (whose family also owns a place in London), their differences clash and they are somewhat tense with each other. But after a while, the women become good friends and encourage each other to pursue their dreams. Soon an undeniable and intense attraction forms between them, leading to a night of passion and pure love. The following day, however, Tala’s feeling obligated to go through with her wedding breaks the relationship, leaving her and Leyla lost and alone.

Tala cannot get Leyla out of her mind, and Leyla is bitter about the breakup. They both must face telling their families, even though they risk ostracism and prejudice. As they begin to come out, Leyla and Tala slowly work towards building their relationship. But can Tala call off her wedding?

I Can’t Think Straight has an interesting (and funny) cast of characters: from Leyla’s smart-remark sister Yasmin, to the kind and silly housekeeper in Tala’s household, Rani. Each character has their traits, like Hani’s kindness and gentle demeanor, and Tala’s youngest sister Zina’s vegetarian crusade. Some characters are either lukewarm or completely unlikable. Tala’s mother Reema is a prejudiced, anti-Semitic social climber who only cares about what her children’s actions will do for her family’s name. Still, most of the characters are good and have close friendships with each other.

The love story between Tala and Leyla is tender, with them respecting the other. They have their moments of doubt and fear; mainly due to coming out to their families. And their fears are very real. The reactions of their families and friends range from despair over why their daughters are gay, anger at the bombshell being dropped on them and their world, to helpfulness and acceptance. Tala is especially worried of the impact her being a lesbian will have on her family and their status in Jordan. Out of the two women, Tala is the most reluctant to make her sexuality known. She must gather her courage to take that step.

Sarif’s novel really hits home how being gay can be received by different cultures, and how family and friends will take it. There were also humorous moments in the story, such as Rani spitting in Reema’s drink and some of the witty dialogue exchanged between the characters. I Can’t Think Straight may not be some people’s cup of tea, but the story, with the diverse and well-fleshed out characters and the rewarding ending, make this an entertaining read.

Anna reviewed I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

I Can’t Think Straight, a novel by Shamim Sarif, is a rarity among lesbian romances. It was adapted from the screenplay of Sharif’s recent film of the same name, which is unusual–generally the movies are created from the books. It also features a cast of almost exclusively non-white characters, which I found refreshing. In the interest of getting a fuller picture, I also watched the film, and I’m here to report that the book was the better of the two, thanks largely to the absence of actors

The story focuses on Tala, a young woman of Palestinian descent whose family is among Jordan’s elite. Tala makes her home primarily in London but, as the action opens, is preparing to celebrate at her fourth engagement party in Jordan. Her counterpart is Leyla, a British Indian woman and fledgling novelist who is dating Tala’s best friend in London. Both women are independent thinkers who struggle to find their place among more traditional family members. Although Leyla is antagonized by Tala’s blunt questioning of her Muslim faith at their first meeting, they soon find out that they have more in common than they might have suspected, including a predisposition toward the company of women. After a steamy overnight, Tala finds herself caught between Leyla, about whom she feels she could develop sincere feelings, and her fiancee Hani, who is perfect in almost every way–except that he’s a man. Tala must come to grips with her own feelings under pressure from an overbearing mother and the weight of cultural expectations . . . ideally before she gets married.

The coming-out tale is an old (and sometimes tired) trope in mainstream lesbian romance, but it takes on a different dimension here. I can hardly think of any coming out stories that feature not one but two non-Caucasian women, and Sarif does a good job of tying Tala and Leyla’s struggles in with the larger cultural setting. The consequences aren’t painted as dire if neither of them choose honesty, but the choice to come out and live as openly gay will definitely have an impact on the way they are perceived.

The title is an obvious pun, just as the outcome of the story is obvious once the characters are put through the necessary misery of coming out to themselves and their families. There are some nice turns of phrase in Sarif’s writing, but there are also some lines that were lifted directly from the screenplay and land somewhat awkwardly. One of the most notable things (and perhaps this derives from the screenplay adaptation as well) was the way that secondary characters were fleshed out for the reader as the narrative jumped to their points-of-view. That’s not a technique generally found in standard lesbian romance, and it helped to reveal the motivations of other players involved and affected by Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Overall an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, read.

Allysse reviews The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif


The World Unseen is set in South Africa in the 1950’s and relates the story of two women – Miriam and Amina – and the way their lives impact each others.

Let me start this review by saying that I love this book. After a lot of trouble to get it from my library I read it in two days, unable to put it down unless I really had to.

What I love most about the novel is that Shamim Sarif takes the time to explore the two main characters but also their family and surroundings. The story is divided into three main sections and we can feel those separations quite well when reading the novel. However it is a smooth and logical process. Every part is introduced and possible only from the actions and developments of the previous sections.

Through the pages we are introduced to a culture, an environment, and we feel as a foreigner getting to understand an unfamiliar place. All characters’ point of views are explored objectively. We may dislike a character but it is from our own choices as we are given the key to understand them and their behaviour.

The author takes us into a different era and a different culture but it feels like we are with the characters, getting to know them and sharing their lives. We can sense the political background of South Africa in the 1950’s. It is fully present but only through the lives and actions of the characters. It is not emphasized or put in the front line of the text, it is simply there as a fact of life of those characters.

Shamim Sarif is a very skillful writer to set the tone of a character, a culture, and a place. She never uses many words but in a few lines, through a few gestures and thoughts, she conveys all the meaning necessary for the reader to understand each character and its motivation.

There is one minor aspect of the novel I didn’t enjoy much. It is the use of non-english words. I wouldn’t have minded so much if a glossary or footnotes had been included to give a translation or definition of the terms. Most of the time the context provides a sort of definition but the words mostly remained vague to me and I was feeling a bit irritated at not understanding them fully.

All in all I highly recommend this novel for its numerous interesting characters as well as for the discovery of another culture. I am not an expert about Idians in South Africa in the 1950’s, but it does feel like Shamim Sarif transcribed the feel of a period and culture very well.

On a none literary note, I also highly recommend the film. Directed by Shamim Sarif herself, it is very respectful of the book but the focus is put more on Amina and Miriam than in the novel. The book really is more about them and their environment, their families and friends, taking the time to explore the life of behaviour of all.