Originally published as fiction for adults, this YA version of Kevin Steven’s A Lonely Note tells the story of a young Iraqi boy growing up in the US.
When authoring a story which explores ethnic dynamics and divides, it is one task to write a story which describes difference and exclusion, and the hardships that this can create. It is another task to describe the wish to choose a life that is not culturally ascribed to you, not because it might ease the hardships, but because it feels natural. Kevin Stevens eloquently succeeds in doing both, and in bringing all of the dynamics of sameness and difference together in this engaging and refreshingly honest book.
A Lonely Note is a story about a boy named Tariq, born in Baghdad, Iraq, and living in America with his mother and father since he was four years old. The difficulties and anxieties that high school can often bring are heightened for Tariq, who is viciously bullied by his classmates on account of his ethnic background. Trying to manage and tolerate this incessant assault on his physical and mental capacities forms the catalyst for Tariq’s discovery of real friendship, familial responsibility, life changing choices, love, and music.
Music plays a key note in this book – comforting, educating, and guiding both Tariq and those he loves into adulthood, and pastures both old and new.
Stevens exquisitely captures the turmoil that Tariq experiences as he tries to deal with his multitude of emotions and sometimes seemingly hopeless fate to follow the religious route carved out for him by his parents. This spans through multiple chapters so that the reader can only but feel how endless this turmoil is. Stevens’s sophisticated writing does not allow this to become repetitive or torturous reading, but only serves to develop his character and bring the reader into Tariq’s world.
This religious and cultural path is often at odds with the life that Tariq would choose if he felt free, but equally presents itself at times as a safe haven which Tariq could lose himself in. This conflict along with themes of captivity underpin this coming-of-age story. The myth that those who are from the ‘same world’ as we are will necessarily understand us is challenged in this book. Often they can be the ones who are furthest away. But, with challenge comes strength and courage.
Tariq’s journey into adulthood is not an easy one. He is however not alone, despite often feeling so. Rachel, the Jewish girl whom his parents gravely disapprove of, is at times his only ally. And then there is Jamal, the veteran who lifts Tariq out of his pain to the souring sounds of John Coltrane’s jazz music. All three of these men will have a lasting effect on each other’s lives.
As well as the coming-of-age theme in this book, which focuses on Tariq and his friends, Stevens also allots time to other characters, like for example Tariq’s parents and Jamal who have already reached adulthood, but in many ways have much to learn and to un-learn. It is a reminder that the lessons and milestones which make us human never end, and we continue to grow throughout our lives.
Stevens’s descriptive language is musical, echoing the musical theme within this book. As he describes “… Jamal’s tom-tom laugh and hissing hi-hat slang”, the words are not words but the sounds of jazz percussion. It makes for very enjoyable reading.
This is a book about growing up, wounds, healing, and worlds colliding where old and new cultural worlds are visited and re-visited.
“The notes, free to breath, to waver, to reach, took on an existence of their own. They filled the room like the wind, invisible but powerful, finding a way through barriers of blood and skin to the soul.”
Finally, it is a story about love – love of family, religion, country, life, and music. Stevens includes a note at the end of the book about John Coltrane and his profoundly enduring jazz song ‘A Love Supreme’, a small but important cultural and musical reference to bookend this tale.