I had seen a lot enthusiasm for I Am Thunder, Muhammad Khan’s debut novel, towards the end of 2017, so I was very excited to get my hands on a copy. It’s been one of my first reads of the New Year, but it has cemented itself as a stand-out for me already.
I Am Thunder tells the story of fifteen-year-old Muzna Saleem, who is simply trying to find her place in the world amidst social pressures at school, the expectations of her parents, and the growing cultural tensions centred on race and religion in the UK. Her dream is to be a novelist – to use words to empower others as well as herself, and to bring the creativity of a modern British Muslim to readers.
With her shyness overwhelming her daily, the prospect of moving to a different school for her Dad’s new job is terrifying. Then the hottest boy in school, Arif Malik, stands up for her in class, and compliments her writing. He even asks her to attend a conference at a university that he’s going to with his older brother. Skipping school isn’t usually her style – what would her parents and teachers say? – but she can’t miss the chance to spend more time with Arif.
This is where Muzna takes the first step on a dark journey.
This is where she first encounters the intense anger that many Muslims, including Arif and his brother, harbour against Western society for demonising their Islamic faith.
This is where she begins to ask herself serious questions about who she is, and who she wants to be.
I Am Thunder was a gripping read from start to finish. Inspired by real events concerning three Bethnal Green school girls who were radicalised by Islamic State and fled to Syria, Khan offers an eye-opening, and horrifying, insight into how easily young people may be influenced by extremist ideologies. Yet it is also a testament to their intelligence and resilience in intensely challenging circumstances, big or small.
Muzna is a powerful and endearing narrator – her insecurities and ambitions are so relatable. She worries about her physical appearance, her popularity, her future, her relationship with her parents, as all teenagers do. Yet Khan also explores how Muzna’s unique family and cultural heritages influence those insecurities. Her parents are more heavily influenced by the Pakistani community than by their Islamic beliefs, constantly concerned with how their behaviours, jobs, and acquaintances impact on their community’s judgment of them. Muzna being 10 minutes late home from school is unacceptable, as is her ambition to become a novelist. The claustrophobia she feels from these expectations, however well-meaning, create a desire to escape and rebel in small ways. She is determined to discover more of the world for herself, including Islamic teachings, especially if the boy she likes is the one teaching her.
Khan’s experience as a secondary school teacher is put to good use, not just in creating Muzna’s unique perspective, but in exploring the various dynamics the comprise secondary school life. The scenes at the school were incredible: making great use of colloquial language and tones, Khan simultaneously grasps the glorious chaos of the environment and the nuance of each interaction. Teachers and fellow students were not simply passing features of Muzna’s story – rather, through her relationships with them, their own stories, motivations, flaws are revealed. It just adds so much texture to the story – for instance, I did not like the school bullies, but there were insights into how they got to that stage of their lives. Those touches made them feel real rather than like caricatures, and the whole narrative is enriched by that.
As I read, I was in awe that this was a debut novel, and I am incredibly enthused to see what Khan writes next. Everything about it – plot, themes, characters, language – was so seamlessly brought together to create a timely, insightful, and gripping story. Books like this prove why YA novels are now holding such sway in the reading market. It’s provoking and complex, has moments of striking simplicity and hope integrated with the terrifying scenes.
At its core, I Am Thunder is the story of a young girl finding her voice. One of the simplest and the most complex experiences any of us go through. And Khan captures that story magnificently.
**I Am Thunder was written by Muhammad Khan, published by Macmillan Children’s Books (Pan Macmillan) in 2018.