Author: Helen Thurloe
Promising Azra is an interesting and insightful look at a completely different culture. I was a little apprehensive going in and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I got was a captivating tale of life for a Muslim family in Sydney.
Arranged and forced marriages seem like they should be things of the past, and I actually did think they were much less common in Australia now than they once were. I remember growing up we had neighbours who arranged marriages for their sons and even then I couldn’t completely grasp it, the partners were arranged though it was left to the couples when they actually married and for the younger son it was quite late. I still can’t quite get my head around having a husband chosen for me, especially while still at high school.
In Australia girls under 18 are still being forced into marriage, often being taken from the country for this to happen. Forced marriage is not practiced in a certain culture or religion, it affects many diverse backgrounds and to ensure the practice is stopped it needs to become more widely known and the true stories of those affected need to be heard.
Promising Azra is a work of fiction, the characters are all fictional but their experiences are based on true or possible events and I think this is important info to have going in.
Armed with all of this I was still a little unsure what I was getting myself into and I anticipated quite a heavy read, I thought it would be a book that took me quite a while to get through. I was wrong! I was quickly completely immersed in the story and read it in a couple of sittings.
It has been a VERY long time since I read Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta but this resonates with a similarity. Perhaps it is just because it focuses on a different culture and how difficult it can be for teens to be true to their heritage and culture while also trying to fit in at their Australian schools. That’s not what I’m trying to say but I can’t find the right words to express what’s in my head, it’s that general idea though.
Azra Ajmal is a smart and talented sixteen year old girl attending a diverse multi-cultural girls high school. Chemistry is her strong point and that shines through every aspect of the novel. The chapter headings are chemistry terms, with their meanings, and where possible everything is compared to chemical reactions. At one point she translates a phone number into elemental numbers and I thought it was just brilliant, but chemistry was never my strong suit.
Azra knows that there will come a time she will be promised and a marriage will be arranged for her, this is something she has expected her entire life. Her hope is that she will first be able to finish high school and hopefully even study at University before that time comes. She hopes that even if she is promised she can postpone the wedding until after her studies, and her parents have always seemed quite supportive of her academic achievements so she thinks she might be in with a shot.
Starting Year 11 Azra is looking forward to her last two years of high school and hoping for university to follow, little does she know that everything is about to change. Already there is a girl in her class planning her wedding with gusto but Azra just wants to focus on school.
An interschool science quiz sets into motion a series of events that may change the course of everything. Azra, Bassima and Vanessa receive awards at the school assembly for their results in the Smart Science test. Awards that see them entered into a national science competition, and Azra thinks her biggest challenge may be getting parental permission to participate.
Promising Azra is the story of Year 11 for Azra, but more than that it’s the story of her entire family. Mother and Father indebted to Uncle for all of his assistance getting them relocated, housed and employed in Australia and his ongoing support in family matters; Azra’s older brother Rashid who seems to be rebelling against his cultural expectations as well and often taking it out on Azra; and youngest in the family Soraya who is still only very young and innocent of all that is going on around her but still feels the tensions quite strongly. As well as the family we learn a little of Azra’s best friend Bassima, who is also muslim but whose family life is very different and also very similar to Azra’s.
Thurloe tells an insightful story of sixteen year old Azra’s desire for an education, her passion for chemistry and her reluctance to enter blindly into the arrangements her family have made. The strict familial restrictions and expectations placed on her to be a good daughter, always be obedient and to help out a lot around the house. She is studying Year 11 so she has lots of homework and study to do but she needs to pick up her sister from school every day and do a lot of the cooking and cleaning at home. Her social life is extremely limited, except where they are familial occasions.
I think one of the biggest things for me was the huge contrast between the expectations of Azra and the behaviour of her older brother Rashid.
Thurloe’s characters are well developed and her storyline is solid, the tension and the pacing were engrossing and Azra’s struggle was captivating. I was pretty blown away by the last third of the book and found it quite heartbreaking to think that girls actually go through this, I can not even begin to imagine. They were certainly not things on my radar in Year 11.
My only real issue with Promising Azra is the ending, I would love to know what happens next – for all of them.
Promising Azra is a stunning debut novel and if Thurloe’s work only gets better as she hones her craft then she will definitely be one to watch.