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Towelhead (Erian) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews
Towelhead is the kind of book that attaches unusual reflectiveness to that particular echo of war. Jasira is old enough to know that women sometimes have sex with departing soldiers because these men may never return. But she's too young to know whether, since Mr. Vuoso will not have a combat assignment, he ought to qualify. Ms. Erian gives this gutsy book its full share of such unthinkable questions.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


Erain's gift for conjuring characters is so strong; she has a sophisticated take on people and charts with real precision how and why the human comedy becomes seriously unfunny.
Jeff Giles - New York Times Book Review


War, statutory rape, child abuse, and racism are hardly the stuff of comedy, but in Towelhead, Alicia Erain succeeds in blending this weird and sometimes shocking mix of elements in a funny, poignant, and utterly readable first novel.
Susan Coil - Washington Post


Erian takes a dogged, unflinching look at what happens as a young woman's sexuality blooms when only a predatory neighbor is paying attention. After 13-year-old Jasira is sent to live with her father in Houston ("I didn't want to live with Daddy. He had a weird accent and came from Lebanon"), she finds herself coming of age in the shadow of his old world, authoritarian ideas, which include a ban on tampons (they're for married women, he insists) and a friendship with a boy who's black. Trapped between her father's rigidity and a wider culture that seems without rules, Jasira is left to handle puberty on her own, as well as her budding sexual desire and an ongoing longing for love and acceptance. Her creepy neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, senses her desires, and she responds eagerly to his sexual overtures. His willingness to eroticize her is heightened by how exotic—as well as distasteful—he finds her, a half–Middle Eastern child living in America on the eve of the first Gulf War. He hires Jasira to baby-sit for his son, and it's clear that their relationship will destroy them. The writing is not subtle—indeed, it can be quite clunky—but as a meditation on race, adolescence and alienation, the novel has moments of power.
Publishers Weekly


Sent to the United States by her mother when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, Jasira must cope with her strict father and the realization that she is an Arab. This full-length debut from a gifted story writer is an in-house favorite.
Library Journal


Jasira's narration is so relentlessly focused on her sexuality and the horrifying abuse she suffers that it becomes hard to read. The historical context—the novel is set before and during the first Gulf War—may be intended as parable, but Jasira's pain consumes the novel so fully that it overwhelms political symbolism. Instead, it is Jasira's straightforward, understated voice that gives power to this.
Booklist


A tedious, fairly moronic take on the pubescent hormone surge, told by a 13-year-old girl. Jasira, prosaically named after Jasir Arafat by her now-divorced Lebanese father and Irish mother, can't help attracting men, with her 34-inch "boobs," so-called by her sexually jealous mother, who sends her to live with her "cheap and bossy" father. But it's even worse in Houston, where Daddy works for NASA and lives in a housing complex with a pool she won't use because of the abundant pubic hair she's embarrassed about, and where Mr. Vuoso, the father of the neighbor boy she baby-sits, gives her a Playboy magazine (she practices masturbation) and comes on to her. Her own father, Rifat, being an old-style Arab, "doesn't like bodies," is horrified by Jasira's incipient womanhood, and forbids her to use tampons or to befriend a black boy from school, Thomas, who genuinely wants to have sex with her. Added tension simmers between Mr. Vuoso, who's a rabidly patriotic military reservist ("towelheads" is his epithet), and Rifat, who bitterly resents the American war machine aimed at the Arabs. The story consists largely of unedited and utterly uninteresting dialogue that goes on and on to demonstrate how Jasira, who seems to have no will of her own, thinks (slowly). Given the meanness around her—from her petty but envious mother; her irascible father, who's prone to strike her; and the manipulative and insulting Mr. Vuoso, her seething crush across the street—she receives little guidance as a sexual creature. Not even the cool and pregnant neighbor Melina, who senses the crisis and gives Jasira the progressive primer Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, is able to protect Jasira from herself—that is, from the explosive sexuality that's entangling her and everyone around her in a kind of gruesome physicality. Storyteller Erian creates a hypnotic effect through her characters' repetitive dumbness—in a first novel that's annoying and memorable.
Kirkus Reviews




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