A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.
But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.
With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.
Trigger warnings: Racism, graphic violence, on-page death, OCD and anxiety
The Weight of Our Sky is a searing, gut wrenching insight into the race riots which erupted in the city of Kuala Lampur in Malaysia in 1969. Told through the perspective of Melati Ahmad, a malay muslim teen who believes herself to be beset by a djinn, which forces her to imagine the most horrible scenarios and keeps her on edge. To appease the djinn she has to engage in repetitive tapping and behaviours, lest her nightmares come true. After a period of growing unrest, the riots erupt in the city, with chinese and malay individuals on either sides engaging in the most brutal of acts. Melati and her mother are separated and the novel follows Mel, as she tries to find her mother, all the while battling her personal demons.
I’ll say right from the outset, this book deals with some incredibly dark subject matter in an honest and unflinching way. I’ve included trigger warnings, but I want to express that you really have to be in the right frame of mind and in a healthy space mentally and emotionally to approach this book. If you’re not in a place where you feel like you can, then please read something else and get back to this when and if you can. With that said, I’ll go into what I thought was great about this book.
The exploration of mental illness is so raw but is done in a sensitive and respectful way, whereby you can really empathise with Melati and feel invested in her journey. The way her mental illness manifests is through OCD and severe anxiety, but due to cultural and religious influences at the time, she believes it to be a djinn. Not only is the portrayal of Melati’s OCD and anxiety eye opening and so well done, it also shines a light upon the misunderstandings and stigma people with mental health issues faced at the time, both within their own families and wider society. The utter exhaustion and pain Melati experiences and how unrelenting her illness is is so saddening to read but very realistic and I think it’s so important for stories like this one to be out there which depict a reality experienced by so many people around the globe.
As well as the mental health rep in the novel, there is also a strong focus on family and community. Throughout the novel, Melati’s main motivation is to find her mother, despite her own trauma’s and experiences, she’s far more concerned about her mothers fate. Though at times it feels utterly hopeless and that there could be no way through, Melati pushes herself and does whatever it takes for the chance to reunite with the most important person in her life.
It was so touching to read in flashbacks the way her parents would pray together and after his untimely death, lost her way, but through it all she had her mother. Family isn’t just restricted to blood relations within the novel though, which I liked. When the riots break out, Melati is saved and taken in by an older Chinese woman, Auntie Bee who treats her with so much compassion and understanding and takes her in. I think this shows that even in the darkest of times, when others choose to act violently, there are some who just want to help and put their humanity over anything else, like race or religion.
I learnt so much about the riots through this novel, I had legitimately never heard about them before so it was definitely a learning experience. I feel like it was well researched and had plenty of fact, while also remaining personal and emotional, depicting the horror of it all, without any bias or choosing ‘sides’. Alkaf focuses on the small cast of characters and their experience of this fraught time, and builds up the tension and danger in such a way that I had such visceral reactions to it all myself.
I appreciated that as dark as the novel gets, there is also hope and it leaves off on a more settled and peaceful note. The characters struggles and experiences are not swept under the carpet and their trauma is recognised, but Alkaf finds a way to make it all come together to form a more uplifting ending. I loved that Melati is doing better and maintains her sweet friendship with Vince, Auntie Bee’s son, with the family visiting her and staying in touch.
Overall, The Weight of Our Sky is such an important book, while it’s definitely difficult to read and very heavy on the mind and spirit at times, I’m glad this story is out there. I think readers will learn so much about a point in history that doesn’t appear to be widely known or talked about a lot, as well as getting an insight into mental illness and how mental health was approached in the time period.
Until next time,