Alicia Erian,
(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

Towelhead is an ambitious novel from first-timer Alicia Erian. I say ambitious because I find the book's major themes -- bigotry, racism, pedophilia, underage sex -- to be ones oftentimes reserved for more seasoned writers. But Erian tackles them all here, while told in the first person through the eyes of a 13-year-old Arab girl.

Although the novel takes a moment to steady its feet and gather its bearings, the payoff is undoubtedly tenfold once Towelhead finally takes off.

Towelhead stars Jasira, a young yet physically developed teen who is forced at age 13 to relocate from Syracuse, New York, to Houston to live with her father after her mother finds her boyfriend in a compromising position alongside Jasira. While there, Jasira finds herself having a tough time adjusting to her new lifestyle within the home of her strict Lebanese father. On top of this, Jasira must navigate through her first experiences of puberty without her mother by her side, fend off nasty kids at school who call her names and constantly put her down, stand by her black boyfriend when her family demands she break ties with the boy and figure out what to do with her much older Army Reservist neighbor, who shows, through action, a physical attraction to Jasira's young body.

It's impressive how much action -- sometimes dramatic, sometimes subtle -- Erian packs into a single tome, completing one storyline, or at least part of the arc, before jumping to the next. I found myself nearly forgetting about an unresolved issue when something larger takes center stage. Then, Erian pushes the "forgotten" storyline back to the forefront, and my interest again peaks to find out how it will play out.

And this talent, this ability to keep a story fresh and interesting through nearly the duration of the time the book lays in your lap, is such an accomplishment for a newbie scribe. Yet, it must be said that Jasira's obsession with tampons, orgasms and her premiere experiences with puberty and her ever-changing body grew a bit long in the tooth at the onset, as it seemed it was the only thing Jasira would ever want to talk about. Yes, these matters increase in importance as both her boyfriend and father-of-one neighbor enter the picture. Even so, the attention to these issues grew to be a bit much, especially for a male reader like myself.

Luckily for film buffs, Alan Ball -- creator of HBO's Six Feet Under and writer of 1999's Academy Award-winning American Beauty -- is behind Towelhead's film adaptation. Warner Indepedent expects to release the film, starring Aaron Eckhart, Toni Colette, Peter Macdissi and Summer Bishil, later this year in August.

review by
Eric Hughes

26 July 2008

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