I loved all four of Sabaa Tahir’s volumes in her Ember in the Ashes series, a YA fantasy following a pair of unlikely teens to an eventual revolution against the cruel and oppressive regime inspired by the Roman Empire. But I was also always fascinated by her bio at the back and the fact that she had grown up at her family’s eighteen-room motel in the Mojave Desert in California. When I heard she was coming out with a contemporary YA book about a kid who lives at a motel in the Mojave, I preordered it immediately.
It might have gathered some dust on my TBR shelf between now and then, but I was still excited to read it. More importantly, months of looking forward to seeing what Tahir can do without ghosts and magic and war was rewarded by the raw and powerful novel that is All My Rage.
Noor (like “lure,” not “bore”) is a whiz at math and science, but her English grades have suffered since her friendship with Salahudin (or just Sal) hit the skids. Which is terrible timing, because she’s desperately—and secretly—applying to as many universities as she can afford to get out of Juniper, the remote town in the Mojave desert where she came to live with her uncle after the rest of her family and village died in a devastating earthquake in Pakistan eleven years earlier. If she doesn’t get out, she’ll be stuck living the life her uncle has decided she’ll have: manning the counter at his liquor store, now and forever, allowing him to pick up his life where he had to pause it when he took Noor in.
Sal’s got it bad, too, and not just with his math scores since splitting with Noor. His mother’s death early in the novel reveals just how much she was doing for the family and the Cloud’s Rest Inn Motel that they ran—and how many cracks beneath the surface she was hiding. As his father’s alcoholism rages, Sal desperately tries to find a way to dig the inn out of the financial hole it’s sliding into. Unfortunately, the only solution besides selling the place is equally unthinkable.
As Noor and Sal try to find their way through the rocky heights and lows of adolescence, another voice—a teenage Misbah, Sal’s mother—gives context and color to the challenges the two modern teens face, as well as showing how heartbreak can reverberate across generations.
Noor, Sal, and Misbah’s stories are all crushing in their own way, but they share a bedrock of family expectations, assumptions that don’t pan out in the worst ways, and the impossibility and compromise of personal wants in the face of the aforementioned constraints. All three of them are filled with varying levels of hope and despair, a cocktail that hits so specifically in that late high school era and that Tahir brings out beautifully for each character. Although I didn’t agree with all of their choices (and got frustrated with one character’s particularly boneheaded actions), there was no disagreeing with the difficult circumstances they contended with. Sitting in my comfy little chair with my comfy little blanket sipping my comfy little mug of tea, any condemnation coming from me would be an insult to their resilience—resilience none of them should have to have to begin with.
Obvious, when a book is called All My Rage, it would be pretty silly to go in expecting a happy story. And tragedy is woven throughout, both on the surface and far beneath. Everything Noor knew was taken from her when the earth shook, and what she has now in this foreign country would make it groan in sorrow. Sal has two loving parents, but one has a host of demons to battle and the other hasn’t been able to protect him from the dangers of the world. And while Misbah is strong enough to hold a lot of broken and lonely people together, she can’t keep her body from failing long enough to keep doing that crucial job. Throughout it all, these Pakistani-Americans have to deal with racism of both the overt and sneaky, sinister kinds. Tahir has given a content warning, and it’s well deserved, because while All My Rage is a powerful book, but it is never a kind one.
And yet, impossibly, the overriding emotion that shines through, even in what seem like the darkest chapters, is hope. Even against fear and mistakes and dire consequences, there is hope. In tomorrow, in love, in doing the right thing even when it’s hard or costly. Talking about the hard things is powerful, but showing how people can come through them is even stronger. Best of all, Tahir does so without reducing these characters to stereotypes or some trope of inspirational immigrant resilience. Ember in the Ashes was good, but All My Rage is astounding.