Review: Bifocal

Bifocal by Deborah Ellis and Eric Walters

In my children’s and young adult literature class, we have a running gag about how the books we read, which are usually populated by characters of color far away from North America, are, more often than not, written by white Canadian women. One such white Canadian dame is Deborah Ellis, author of Parvana’s Journey. By my reaction to that novel, you can pretty much extrapolate my feelings on Bifocal, despite the presence of Eric Walters. Thank the powers that be that she vanished from our reading list after we powered through this one.

Bifocal takes place in an urban Canadian high school just as Azeem, a Muslim student, is arrested for his involvement in a bomb plot. Each writer takes over a certain character: Haroom, a Iranian-Canadian quiz bowl teammate of Azeem’s, is Ellis’ turf, and Jay, a popular football player, is Walters’. As the school tries to recover from the attacks, race relations in the school grow steadily worse, until it culminates in a night that might change everything.

This is another book that rolls off the brain. At the time of this writing, I finished Bifocal two days ago, polishing it off in one afternoon. It simply left no lasting impression; certainly, there are no entries in my commonplace book from this. If I had to characterize this book, it would be bland—and in my book, that’s a sin. It suggests, at least to me, that the author (or authors) don’t much care for the story they’re writing; it says that making sure it’s consistent, human, or even interesting isn’t worth their time. Blow me away or make me breathe fire; either reaction means that you’ve put something you care about down on the page. Even if it’s not a topic I’m not interested in, your enthusiasm can infect me, and I can tell if it’s done with heart and integrity, even if I find the execution to be off. The fact that Bifocal fails to do that in any capacity disappoints me.

In fact, it sometimes feels like it goes out of the way to be disappointing. Like Burn my Heart, Bifocal is advertised as a novel concerning a friendship between two boys from different walks of life—but Jay and Haroon only start interacting towards the very end of the novel, and their friendship has no motivation behind it. Also like Burn my Heart, the white boy is frustratingly clueless. Jay is bewilderingly racist for a supposedly sympathetic protagonist and does nothing about it. While he may ponder the fact that he never knew his fellow football player Moose was Muslim, he still goes along with whatever the football captain says, which includes vandalism, attacking Haroon’s house, and lying to the authorities. Haroon, alternatively, is a blandly nice guy trying to deal with his sister’s newfound taste for abayahs and other issues affecting his family. The reason their stunted friendship is so unlikely is that Jay confesses to Haroon… and Haroon just forgives him. Now, I understand forgiveness as something to bestow and something you might be spiritually motivated to give, but Haroon barely reacts and the two become fast friends. Given the racially divisive landscape of their school, I found this to be not only ridiculous, but rude to Haroon as a character; what, isn’t he allowed, as an average teenage boy might be, to be angry that Jay, I don’t know, vandalized his home for racist reasons?

Ellis and Walters also manage to avoid any sort of organic conflict—okay, to be fair, I did enjoy the conflict between Zana, Haroon’s sister, and their mother over Zana’s choice to wear an abayah. I occasionally hear the ridiculous and insulting argument that Muslim women can’t be feminists, especially if they choose to dress modestly, which is, of course, total bull. So seeing this conflict play out where the younger generation harkens back to their roots against the wishes of the older generation was interesting… or, at least, it would have been, had it been resolved. Similarly, Azeem’s story is never resolved; is he actually guilty? Add on top of that enormous gaps in logic, such as Haroon becoming Jay’s friend and extremist classmates of Haroon watching a Bin Laden video in class, and you get a remarkably thin piece of work. I wonder this would have been like if the novel had been about Jay and Moose, who is, at the very least, already Jay’s friend and in his same circle. But I don’t think it would have been any different.

Bottom line: There are some social justice novels that winningly combine story, human characters, and message. Bifocal is not one of them, committing the sin of forgetability as well as leaving logic and human characters beyond. Avoid.

I bought this used book off of Amazon.

4 thoughts on “Review: Bifocal

  1. A Muslim student is accused of a terrorist act? And to think I almost went a week without seeing that plot.

    I mean, it’s good to discuss the injustices Muslims face in a paranoid, post-9/11 society (I kind of hate myself right now for using that phrase, but at the very least it’s chronologically accurate). But that specific premise is so stale that it sort of reinforces your point about the authors not really being invested in what they were writing. It’s like their editor asked them to write a book about a Muslim kid and they just went with the first idea that came to mind.

    So I can see why you found the family subplot more interesting. At least in that storyline the Muslim characters were allowed to have an existence beyond their relation to terrorism.

    (Re: your comment about Muslim feminists, I suppose you’re aware of If you’re not, she’s a fantastic Muslim feminist blogger, who specifically addresses the idea that Muslims can’t be feminists.)

  2. *eyeroll* Oh, I’m having flashbacks to my adolescent lit class in college. Some of the books were so amazing and some of them tired me out. And YES. The thing you say is true, about the books with minority protagonists being written by white ladies. We had several like that and I got so, so tired of them.

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