Young practicing Muslims who’ll be continuing their studies can take some time reading Norhafsah Hamid’s award-winning book and the start of a book series that is worth following.
First thing’s first: not to be confused with the 2010 Christian drama film, Letters to God directed by David Nixon. It’s this one (Goodreads link).
A practicing Muslim girl continues her studies far from home, made some friends, a particular enemy, and got some admirers. Conflict comes from jealousy of the enemy towards the main character, related to both admirers. She wrote a diary in the form of the aforementioned Letters To God.
The Long Story
Sarah, a quiet bookworm (and loves reading Judith McNaught, hehehe) got admitted into the University of Reading for a law degree, while her best friend, Amy, will be in Liverpool instead. Sarah is kind to everyone and found new friends. She preferred her non-Malaysian, non-Muslim friends more as she sees most Malaysian she knew there seems to only mingle with Malaysians, and some Muslims do not practice Muslim ethics in their lifestyle. Still, she was friends with Mat Bond and Jaws, who are also Muslim Malaysians studying there.
Her admirers consist of two handsome men. The first one was Jonah, a non-Muslim blue-eyed, sculpted to perfection, a ladies man (but not the arrogant jerk kind, he’s the gentleman kind). Jonah was a temptation that Sarah prayed to fight against as he is non-Muslim. Meanwhile, Jonah, who gets to know Sarah, was said to start changing from being a ladies’ man to an average man, i.e. don’t date around anymore (although he is by choice, while the guys in my family said theirs are due to lack of chances). In his case, she steers away as in her faith it is best to choose a partner who lives and believes in the same faith. (But reading the synopsis for Heaven Sent and Dear God, I have a hunch that he is the male lead).
The second one is a postgraduate, brother Rasyid (no, he’s not her actual brother or cousin. It’s just a polite way of calling each other in Islam, a kind of Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood). Brother Rasyid is also an almost perfect person, although not as captivating as Jonah in Sarah’s perspective. He was stable, educated, religious, and older. He had also proposed to Sarah through brother Mike. Unfortunately, Sarah is not much inclined with the marriage life yet and envision herself fulfilling her career desires before embarking on a marriage (it’s a serious lifetime business).
Just a head’s up, I cringed at the start when I came across this paragraph in the prologue:
Sarah is not like anyone. Sarah never follows the masses. Sarah believes in finding her own way, in her own time. Sarah is special.
It gave the vibe of not-like-other-girls, which, taken negatively, can sound condescending. So, I put down the book after finishing the first chapter, set it aside first, and did some things for the day. The next day I continued with a fresh mind.
It’s good for those who are just starting to read, and a good option for those seeking Islamic fiction. The storytelling is not complex, the English are easy to read, the main character refers to Islamic ethics whenever she thinks of a certain situation or action.
Due to it being mostly an inner monologue, Sarah may come off as a Mary-Sue and whiny, but let’s be honest, if anyone can hear what goes through our mind all day, wouldn’t they think the same about us? (That’s why silence is golden. Time to filter out my Twitter Feed).
Putting aside all the inner monologues, there’s not much plot going on ( see TL:DR Recap). There’s some misunderstanding, college gossip, hurtful feelings, but nothing detrimental. No dying close relatives, no provocative assignments that conflict with principles, no dangerous situations. You could read the first chapter and skip straight to the epilogue and wouldn’t miss much.
The journey in between is pretty laid back, suitable for a relaxing time. For those who have culture shock or are expecting there’ll be culture shock when continuing studies somewhere far from home, this part might be the most useful to read. From what I am able to surmise, this is the intention of the book; the journey of a practicing Muslim in a strange new world and experiences.
All in all, writing is hit-and-miss. This won’t stop me from reading other books from Norhafsah Hamid, as I do love some of her books before this, and I would recommend you to try others in her books list before throwing out the towel and writing her off. Besides, it’s not as if I cannot fully relate to it, some of them are thoughts that I had too once:
Try to read the first 3 chapters. If you started to get disheartened or lost interest, I would suggest you read Rough Diamond first or in parallel with this book. Personally, I felt Rough Diamond is a leap above as the character development gets more complex and multi-dimensional (Linda sleeps around, color her hair, drinks beer and wine, yet she is also a studious student, respectful of elders, and loves her family), along with a multi-character perspective.
Heaven Sent is the sequel for Letters To God and based on the synopsis, it’s the story between Sarah and Jonah. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment on how it ties in.
Why Did I Read Letters To God?
I was searching for Islamic fiction aside from Umm Zakiyyah’s books. While I started with non-fiction books when it comes to Norhafsah Hamid, When I found out she wrote this book, and the premise is quite interesting (writing letters to Allah to encourage the habit of talking to Him), I grabbed it. The book cover design also helps, as the scribbling of the letters used as the background is literally WYSIWYG ( What You See Is What You Get). (Hint: Check the texts on page 12 to page 14).
This is from the author of two books I loved; Trying To Be Muslim and Back To Basics. Both are non-fiction, but something that I relate and connect deeply, being a born, re-learning, and practicing Muslim.
Read It If You Like
- Coming-of-age stories
- Stories about studying in a new place far from home
- First-person point of view (POV) narrative
- A glimpse of a practicing Muslim’s life
- Simple English
- Slice-of-life, light-hearted, clean stories
- Quran-led examples in character actions
Don’t Read It If You Don’t Like
- A lot of questioning and inner judgment by the main characters
- More tell than show for characteristics
- 2-dimensional characters
- Black-and-white morality
- Preach-like stories
Other Facts About The Book
- This book is part of a series. Other books in the series are Heaven Sent, Rough Diamond, Dear God, and Divine Blessings.
- It won the “Novel Inggeris Terbaik Anugerah Buku Negara 2019.
- It was awarded second place for Popular-The Star Readers’ Choice Award 2019 under Fiction.
- It won “Best Paperback Fiction” under Best of MPH 2018.
- It was longlisted in the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award
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