Despite the different themes and agendas, these two new YA novels from Pan Macmillan do have things in common, including both being told in alternating chapters from each character’s point of view.
When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah is set in Sydney amid the refugee debate, the alternating narrative between the two main characters reiterating the idea that there are two sides to every story – even if one side is clearly influenced by ill-informed, Islamophobic parents and easily swayed – and ultimately showing a more compassionate way to live.
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley is set in a whimsical second bookshop where people hide letters to loved ones in significant copies of texts and secretly grieve for those they’ve lost.
The first novel is politically charged, topical and raises serious concerns about social justice and the dangerous views held by those who don’t welcome refugees and migrants to Australia’s shores. The second references some of my favourite books and poems – Great Expectations, Cloud Atlas, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock – and shows how these shape our understanding of love, death, knowing and how they can draw us closer to each other.
Both novels show the developing relationship between two teenagers. There’s Michael, proudly standing by his family and their ‘Aussie Values’ but attracted to Mina who arrives at his school from Afghanistan, via Auburn. Mina’s initial dislike of Michael is completely understandable given his views on immigration, but she stands her ground and is determined to show him another perspective. The other novel has Henry and Rachel, best friends for years, briefly estranged and inevitably destined to be together. There’s the complication of Amy – demanding, beautiful, unobtainable – and the lost letter Rachel wrote declaring her love, but ultimately this is a charming journey of friendship and love.
Rachel and Mina are both grieving for lost siblings. It’s difficult to talk about for both of them and their losses makes them more complex than others can comprehend. Rachel helps us understand more about the dead and develops her own ideas about souls and memory in relation to what she reads. I love that David Mitchell’s transmigration of souls comes into this book in a way that changes a character’s understanding of the world.
I feel like every time I finish reading a book my understanding of life is altered just a little more and through this understanding, living becomes just a little bit easier. I think Rachel and Henry would like that idea. Words in Deep Blue gently helps readers navigate the unexpected changes and losses of life without ever feeling preachy or forced. There are more specific understandings that we gain from books too and When Michael Met Mina shows us what it’s like to have to move to a new country out of fear and embark on a dangerous and horrifying journey, hoping for safety. Michael learns about this through getting to know Mina and it’s an important lesson for all of us.
When Michael Met Mina has a strong purpose and a point of view that shifts in the way the author hopes others will also shift their perspectives. The high school dynamics are believable and real difficulties of Mina’s family are held up as a way to examine current society.
Words in Deep Blue is a more timeless story and although the cast of characters are still distinct people the messages are much more subtle. They are patient with each other, kind when they’re called on and most appealingly they all read, talk about what they read and look at the world differently depending on what they read.
Both hold important messages; both books highly recommended.