These Impossible Things by Salma El-Wardany

“Their laughter split the air and, in a heartbeat, lightness was back. It’s always easier to laugh about things than to cry about them.”

These Impossible Things an engrossing novel that would make for a great summer read & book club pick. Salma El-Wardany’s prose, which is by turns lively and poignant, is utterly absorbing. Her setting and dialogues were vibrantly rendered and made Malak, Kees, and Jenna’s stories all the more immersive. While I do have some issues with the El-Wardany’s tone, which often seemed to stray into the kind of sentimentalism I have come to associate with soaps or a certain subset of new adult novels, and how certain discourses (slt & victim shaming, casual sex, domestic abuse) are handled, I still found a lot to enjoy and appreciate in These Impossible Things. El-Wardany is able to present her readers with a fairly multivalent interrogation of love (romantic & platonic), sex, and faith, starring three best friends who are struggling to navigate adulthood, to reconcile their Muslim & British identities, to find a balance between self-fulfilment and family obligations, and to negotiate social & cultural pressures.
While the novel is certainly trying to integrate intersectional & feminist beliefs in its portrayal of the trials & tribulations of these three young women, there are a lot of scenes and passages that struck me as vaguely moralistic, in the way they present/discuss a certain issue. I also could not help but notice that the one gay character is very much walking and talking cliché of the sassy & Oprah-quoting gay man who exists only to give our straight female heroine relationship advice. The thing that I questioned the most however wasn’t the predictably heteronormative narrative but the author’s choice to make the two Muslim love interests into Bad Men while the white guys are slightly flawed but ultimately Good Men…also, the premise made me think that the book would primarily focus on the bond between Malak, Kees, and Jenna but sadly most of their friendship plays a role in the beginning and in the ending of the book, and the majority of the narrative is spent on dating & romance drama…which maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if the men in question had been given more shall we say nuanced personalities…but they weren’t. The dynamic between Malak, Kees, and Jenna was the most compelling aspect of the story and yet it is often sidelined in favor of these ‘romances’.

Malak, Kees, and Jenna have been inseparable ever since they met as children during Islamic school. Despite their different temperaments and aspirations, the three are a unit and have always consulted one another when making small & big life decisions. In order not to break their ‘circle’ the three friends even go on to attend the same university and even when two of them get boyfriends, they still make time for one another (if anything the boyfriends are the ones to tag along…). And then comes the fight, a fight in which it is not Jenna, who is seen as the more impulsive and outspoken one in the group, but Malak and Kees who exchange words, the kind of words that do damage. The timing of their fight doesn’t help as Malak and Kees have just graduated and are about to embark on different paths: Kees has Harry, her steady & secret white Catholic boyfriend, and is about to start working as a lawyer at a firm that offers legal aid to disadvantaged; Malak instead feels that she has no choice but to break up with Jacob, who is white, as she yearns for a partner who can belong to her community. Reeling from the heartbreak of losing both the man she loved and her friendship with Kees, Malak decides to move to Cairo. Jenna is caught in the midst of Kees and Malak’s falling out, so she finds herself experiencing a newfound sense of loneliness. She has casual romantic/sexual encounters but like Malak she would like to marry a Muslim man. Mo seems to be the ideal candidate for a husband but she doesn’t feel a spark with him…

Switching between their perspectives we see how their paths inevitably bifurcate. After she says yes to Harry, Kees can no longer avoid telling her parents about his existence, even when she knows that they will likely never be able to accept him or their love. The author depicts her dilemma with empathy and I appreciated that while other characters, such as Harry’s mum or that colleague of Kees’, are quick to condemn her parents for not being supportive of their union, the narrative doesn’t. When Kees’ sadness over the loss of her parents threatens her relationship with Harry she is forced to confront the depths of her sorrow. Jenna experiences a deeply traumatic event and finds herself attempting to forge a new identity, one that she believes will protect her from such an experience. She decides to pursue a relationship with Mo and ignores intentionally and non the signs that he is imposing his family values & conservative views on her and their relationship. Malak ends up in an increasingly toxic relationship with a Muslim guy who is all for upholding traditions only when others are concerned. But in Cairo Malak is away from her parents and brother, and most of all she doesn’t have Kees and Jenna to look out for her, so she, similarly to Jenna, ignores the many red flags in her new relationship.

minor spoilers:

With Kees and Malak no longer on speaking terms, the three are no longer the united front they used to be. While they do express regret over their fight, they don’t really try to attempt to mend things, which did strike me as not entirely believable, especially when the people in question were portrayed as being quite fair. Anyway, their minds are more often than not occupied by boy-related drama, and I can’t say that I cared to read about it. Malak is with an abusive asshole. If I had a cent for a book I read in 2022 featuring a woman of Egyptian heritage who grew up in a western country and is now in her 20s and in what some would call a spur-of-the-moment decision moves to Cairo around the time of the 2011 Egyptian revolution where she falls for an emotionally abusive man I would have two cents. Which isn’t a lot, but it’s weird that it happened twice.
Now, as I said, I would have much preferred if the friendship had remained the focus of these storylines. Even though they are no longer friends the three still could have thought about one another, and the story could have explored in more depth just how much their lives have changed now that they are no longer friends. I did think it weird that the parents didn’t ask more questions about why their daughters were no longer the inseparable trio they used to be…anyway, with the exception of Kees, family dynamics are also sidelined in favor of these romantic relationships, which was a pity as I thought that the story could have been enriched by having the parents and siblings play a more active role in the narrative. I also thought that Kees, Jenna, and Malak were a bit too defined by their dating status. And their personalities could have been fleshed out a bit more. Their lives outside of dating also remain somewhat unexplored, and we are only given brief glimpses into their jobs. At times they merely seemed like the generic idea of what a millennial woman is like…

not so minor spoilers

I cannot stress how much I dislike novels where a young woman is shown to be into casual sex/sexual encounters only as a way of pointing to her loneliness. At first, it seemed that Jenna found casual encounters empowering but no, of course, she then has to reiterate the tired ‘I’m not one of those women’ kind of nonsense and she also has to be ‘punished’ by the narrative for being sexually active. And I hated how that whole plotline was handled. She has this friend, a white guy, and it was quite refreshing to read about a platonic friendship between a woman and a man (both of whom are heteros)…but then the narrative kind of ruins that by having him decide that he can tell her friends about her rpe without asking her consent or anything but to ‘save’ her from marrying Mo. I mean wtf. But he is not the only white saviour. Harry & Jacob also have their moment and puh-lease. The narrative suggests that Kees, Jenna, and Malak rescued each other but it ignores the saviour-esque role played by these white guys. While I appreciated that the narrative doesn’t do the usual ‘all white cis hetero men suck’, and in fact there are a few instances where Harry, who is very much at peak privilege given that his parents are hideously wealthy, reminds Kees that his white/male privilege doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have feelings and that he can’t be hurt by having to be kept a ‘secret’ from Kees’ family, it annoyed me how unbelievably good he was. Come on. Kees treats him like sh*t and he is so understanding and patient and what have you that he never really snaps. He is shown to be on the verge once or twice but it doesn’t happen. And his goodness irritated me, especially in that scene where he tells a ‘hysterical’ Kees off for being ‘rude’ to her mother.
And, I also must acknowledge something else that didn’t quite sit right with me. Out of three friends, Malak and Jenna are dating Muslim men…and they turn up to be different levels of abusive. Mo is a more vanilla type of problematic (he is jealous of other men, forcing jenna to end her friendship with lewis) whereas Malak’s guy is this walking, breathing, and talking Red Flag (his emotional abuse carries the threat of violence).
That whole finale was beyond cheesy and required a prolonged suspension of disbelief. It had strong soap opera vibes.
I didn’t understand why the characters’ names had to take the place of chapter numbers/titles….the book employs a 3rd pov, so we would know who we were reading about…and what is the point if in Malak’s chapters the perspective isn’t solely Malak’s one? Sometimes we are given insight into the states of mind of other characters or information that Malak/Jenna/Kees couldn’t possibly know.
Lastly, there is this weird moment where two characters share a psychic connection of sorts that is unexplained and it was just jarring. I am all for magical realism, but here it was such an odd one-off that it just didn’t work.

Despite my criticism, I still found this to be a captivating read. Sure, sometimes El-Wardany’s prose could be oversentimental in its imagery & metaphors (and as a lesbian i couldn’t help but roll my eyes by stuff like “Hearing her moan into his mouth is one of his favorite feelings but he doesn’t really know why. Doesn’t know why swallowing the sighs of a beautiful woman feels like collecting butterflies.” or “[she was] tiredly savoring the aches and stings that come from a man roaming across a woman’s body all night long.”) but it also included many affecting reflections on love, family, and faith. I also found the banter and discussions populating Malak, Kees, and Jenna’s narrative to be really engaging. There were some really witty moments and many heartfelt scenes. I found scenes featuring Kees’ father to be particularly poignant. As I mentioned earlier, the author doesn’t demonize the girls’ parents, nor does she condone their behaviour. While we may not agree with Kees’ parents we will find ourselves unable to dismiss them…I would have loved it if the girls’ familial relationship had been explored in more depth, as they were far more interesting than their dating/marriage drama.
While reading this I was very much reminded of Dele Weds Destiny and Three Daughters of Eve, both novels explore love, marriage, and faith and focus on a trio of friends who lose touch after university. While here the ending was very corny and included one too many moments of melodrama, I liked that El-Wardany challenges a monolithic view of Islam and repeatedly questions her characters’ idea of what being a ‘good Muslim’ entails and calls them out when necessary.

My favorite scenes were the ones with Kees, Jenna, and Malak. Even when they were squabbling I found their chemistry undeniable. They are not perfect, they make mistakes, sometimes of the self-sabotaging variety, but they are given the opportunity to make amends & grow as people. I think we can all agree on the fact that there isn’t a lot of media focusing on the friendship between Muslim women (i can only think of We Are Lady Parts a fantastic series revolving around a Muslim female punk band) so if you are thinking of reading These Impossible Things, I recommend that you do. Sure, some of its dialogues on consent, female sexuality, femininity & womanhood, were a bit ‘dusty’ for my taste, and some could say deeply heteronormative, but I think it’s quite clear where the author ultimately stands on certain issues (such as sa & rape, abortion, domestic abuse, victim-blaming). I wish she could have reined in the drama a bit when portraying some of these issues but it seemed to me that the author’s heart was always in the right place…
So, if you are searching for an engrossing summer read that delves into the misadventures of growing up and finding love in all of the right & wrongs places, search no more.

“They sit, bodies folded around each other, women young and old who have gathered from different countries, all following the same lines of curled Arabic letters, bodies swaying ever so slightly as the word of God vibrates from a woman’s throat so beautifully that at one point or another, it brings them all to tears.”

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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