The escapeNaz Kutub (Bloomsbury 978-1-54760-917-8, $24.99, 336pp, hc) June 2022.
First author Naz Kutub The escape may be light on the fantasy, but nonetheless well worth the time for fans of young adult fantasy fiction. Split between a present-day gay teenager searching for his missing ex, scenes of these teenage lovers during their high school romance, and an ancient story about two lovers separated by magic and prejudice, the novel jumps through time. and space at a breakneck pace.
Sayyed is a 17-year-old Indian Muslim who struggles to balance the openness and freedom of Los Angeles with the bigotry and inflexible rules of his overbearing immigrant father. His mother and younger sister, although loving, do not give him all the support he needs. His mother protects him as much as she can, but that is not enough to stop her husband’s violent words or actions. His sister agreed not to tell anyone that Sy was gay, but in the meantime he has to accept her lectures about how his identity goes against their beliefs.
Sy’s only outlets are her job at a local coffee shop and her boyfriend – do that ex-boyfriend. Sy and Farouk kept their relationship a secret for months, largely because Sy was unwilling and unable to come out. Farouk and his cafe supervisor, Dzakir, showed him how supportive a gay family could be. After Farouk and Sy break up, Sy stays at the cafe while the boy he still loves wanders halfway around the world to find himself. Much to Sy’s horror, Farouk suddenly disappears.
Enter Reggie, a localized tornado of a young woman. Exorbitantly wealthy and without responsibility, Reggie spends all his time twirling around. She doesn’t get attached to anyone and drowns her feelings in alcohol. Until she meets Sy. Reggie gives Sy the reunion of a lifetime. He just has to make a wish. So he does. He first wishes for a million dollars – and poof!, the money appears in his bank account – and then to find the boy he loves. Reggie and Sy go on a whirlwind adventure across England and North Africa as they follow in Farouk’s footsteps. Is Reggie really a djinn, or is she just an heiress with too much time and money on her hands? The answer may lie in the interstitial scenes in the story of Hamza and Delima, Kutub’s version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Kutub keeps his foot on the accelerator for most of the novel. The characters are always on the move, from one room to another, from one country to another. Yet it also allows moments of contemplation and reflection. Sy isn’t ignorant or oblivious to queerphobic and Islamophobic rhetoric, but his relatively sheltered life in Los Angeles has shielded him from the worst. During his travels, he is propelled into reality. Whether it’s meeting Islamophobic immigration officials, getting swept up in an anti-racism protest, or visiting a refugee camp, these experiences put one’s own life into perspective; he sees how big the world is and how many more options he had than he thought.
Kutub handles the complexity of religion and homosexuality in a way that I really enjoyed. I am very familiar with Christian religious and spiritual practices but I know little about Islam. However, what I saw with Sy reflected in many ways the difficult relationship I had at his age with Christianity: the constant questioning, the frustrations at what seemed too much like restrictions and denials, the recognition that people who claim this religion cannot model the best of it. Sy never considers himself not a Muslim; on the contrary, during his quest, he discovers that his ties to his faith are stronger than he thought. Kutub allows Sy to explore and consider without falling back into the ridiculously simplified “organized religion is bad” versus “organized religion is good” debates. The intersection between religion and culture is a complex and heavy thing, and readers can see Sy engaging with it in a healthy, non-combative way.
My only moment of pause comes from Sy and Farouk’s relationship. For me, it turned out to be somewhat co-dependent and unequal. At one point, marriage and having children arise as they plan their future together, despite both still being teenagers. Farouk abandons Sy because Sy won’t follow Farouk’s plans, but Farouk doesn’t seem at all interested in what Sy might want (not that Sy even knows what he wants). Despite my hesitation, there is nothing unrealistic about the feelings that underlie their relationship. The foundation on which their relationship rests isn’t that solid, but it adequately reflects how all-consuming romance can be for young adults, especially that first relationship, where everything is new, untested, and exciting.
With Naz Kutub’s charming, familiar writing style and compelling cast of characters, The escape made for a quick but meaningful read. I can’t wait to see what Kutub writes next. Publishing industry please give me more queer Muslim YA and thank you!
Alex Brown is a queer black librarian and writer. They have written two books on the history of marginalized communities in Napa County, California. They write about science fiction, fantasy, and horror for adults and young adults, as well as BIPOC history and librarianship. Diversity, equity, inclusion and access are the foundation of all their work. Alex lives in Southern California with their pet rats and ever-growing piles of books.
This review and others like it in the August 2022 issue of Venue.
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