Book Review: Hollow Fires by Samira Ahmed
Safiya Mirza is a high school senior looking forward to enrolling at Northwestern University and subsequently pursuing a career in journalism. As editor-in-chief of her private school’s newspaper, she’s already had run-ins with Principal Hardy, who doesn’t like how her paper insists on bringing up issues he regards as controversial. But then her online column gets hacked by white supremacists. Hardy accuses her of making the whole thing up as a stunt, threatening to get Northwestern to rescind her scholarship if she doesn’t toe the line. Even with the support of her mostly minority staff, Safiya feels deeply wronged. Just as bad, she now has to worry about her physical safety on top of the fate of her academic and career futures.
All that gets shoved to the backburner though when she realizes that the weird sensory impressions she’s been getting lately seem to be urging her to look into the case of Jawad Ali, a boy who’d recently gone missing from Chicago’s South Side. Jawad rose to notoriety after an art project he’d made was mistaken for a bomb by a paranoid teacher. He was arrested and perp-walked out of school. Though he was quickly cleared, life never went back to normal, as the nickname Bomb Boy stuck to him. Bad enough he had to endure the moniker in his personal life: it was also used as a pejorative by the online far right to further smear him, his family, immigrants, and Muslims as potential terrorists.
At first, his disappearance is treated as a kidnapping, especially after a ransom demand is made. But after days pass and no further word is heard, public interest begins to lag, until it seems as if only his parents and Safiya still care about the case. Safiya refuses to give up on finding Jawad, even as it becomes clear that he’s no longer alive and that it’s partly his ghost—along with her burning desire to find justice for him and peace for his parents—that’s driving her often lonely search:
But I didn’t stop. Couldn’t. I’d made a promise to a dead boy. And I was going to see it through.
I could say it was solely the hodgepodge of clues and half-baked theories that had led me there. Or my desire for justice. Or my needling curiosity that my friend Asma called nosiness. But I’m not that good a liar. There was a voice. His voice. The voice of a dead boy. I didn’t want to believe it. But it was there, pulling me forward, reeling me in, asking me to find the true story. And to tell it.
Safiya’s story is a powerful metaphor for the impact that the voices and images of the unjustly murdered have on the public. Even if their ghosts aren’t actually haunting us, the stories of the victimized can motivate us to do the right thing, seek out the truth, and at least attempt to stop wrongdoers from continuing to commit their crimes.
Just as importantly, this novel gives voice to the people who often feel unheard and, worse, stifled by a society that wants them to conform and not make waves, even if that means accepting a million cuts, slights, and injustices. While Safiya’s struggles eventually place her in danger, her outspokenness, her visibility, and her social connections are what ultimately save her. Jawad, the other viewpoint character in this book, instead chooses a silence that he thinks will be best for everyone, but ultimately proves to shield his harassers and, eventually, killers:
I never told my parents. I didn’t want to worry them even more. I was trying to be a good son. They both seemed so tired after my arrest. Even their bodies moved slower, like they were kind of broken. Like they got old overnight.
I guess I should have told them about the texts. I guess I should’ve told someone. But it was easier to pretend that nothing was happening. That everything was okay. All I needed to do, I thought, was keep my head down. Keep my eyes on my own paper. Keep my mouth shut. Disappear. I tried to make myself invisible. Turned out I was too good at it. Turned out vanishing was my superpower.
Hollow Fires is a rollercoaster of emotions, as Safiya must separate the truth from lies in her pursuit of what really happened to Jawad. As a writer, I admired what Samira Ahmed did with the biggest plot twist. As a reader, I was hoping against hope that what I dreaded wasn’t about to come to pass, so invested was I in the characters and their happiness. I also really appreciated the diversity of Islam and Muslims that she showcased here, as well as what she had to say on topics that often dilute the believability of otherwise well-intentioned young adult mystery novels.
Most of all, I love her ongoing message to everyone who faces injustice: speak up and act out. The life you save, as the saying goes, may be your own.